The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bloomberg’s manipulated debate video earns Four Pinocchios

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg posted a video from the Feb. 19 Democratic debate that was edited to show a prolonged silence that never happened. (Video: The Washington Post)
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“I’m the only one here that I think that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?”

— Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg in a video distributed on Twitter

In anticipation of the presidential election season, The Fact Checker last year worked with The Washington Post video department to produce a guide to manipulated video. The goal was to produce a common language to identify and label video that is designed to mislead viewers.

Well, in the wake of a widely panned debate performance, Bloomberg’s campaign produced a doozy.

The Facts

Late in the ninth Democratic debate, Bloomberg made this comment: “What I was going to say, maybe we want to talk about businesses. I’m the only one here that I think that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?”

Two seconds passed, and no one else on the stage answered. Bloomberg said, “Okay,” and moved on.

The video takes that minor moment and stretches it to 22 seconds, with reaction shots that make the other candidates look troubled, embarrassed or confused. The video is silent except for cricket sounds. These were all taken from other moments in the debate. For instance, with the help of Elyse Samuels of The Post video team, we identified:

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), when she was under fire from former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg for not remembering the name of the president of Mexico.
  • Buttigieg, when he was being lectured by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after Buttigieg described him as polarizing: “That’s what we are saying, Pete, is maybe it’s a time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington, rather than your billionaire campaign contributors.”
  • Sanders, in a reaction shot from the very start of the debate, as moderator Lester Holt called him “a self-described democratic socialist [who] has surged into the lead nationally in the Democratic race.”

This is a case of what our guide labels as “Deceptive Editing,” specifically a subcategory of “Omission”: “Editing out large portions from a video and presenting it as a complete narrative, despite missing key elements, is a technique used to skew reality.”

Twitter has announced that starting March 5, it will label “synthetic or manipulated video” or even remove tweets if they could cause harm. A Twitter official told The Washington Post that the Bloomberg video would probably have a label attached to it if it had been tweeted after the policy went into effect.

More than 2 million people had watched the video seven hours after it had been posted, so this is not a minor matter.

Bloomberg spokeswoman Julie Wood defended the video: “It’s tongue-in-cheek. There were obviously no crickets on the debate stage,” she said.

The Pinocchio Test

Political ads can be fun and entertaining, but they shouldn’t be misleading. Anyone who had not seen the debate could have been easily misled into thinking the other candidates stood there in stunned silence for nearly half a minute.

We’re taking a tough line on manipulated campaign videos before viewers are flooded with so many fakes that they have trouble knowing what is true. The Bloomberg campaign should label this as a parody or else take the video down.

In the meantime, Bloomberg earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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