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Twitter flags GOP video after activist’s computerized voice was manipulated

Ady Barkan addresses the Democrats' virtual convention Aug. 18. (DNCC/Getty Images)

Twitter flagged a video shared by the second-ranking House Republican on Saturday as “manipulated,” as it spliced quotes together from an activist who speaks through computer voice assistance, making it sound as though he’d convinced Joe Biden to defund police departments.

“I have lost my ability to speak, but not my agency or my thoughts,” Ady Barkan wrote to Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House minority whip, in a Sunday tweet. “You and your team have doctored my words for your own political gain. Please remove this video immediately. You owe the entire disability community an apology.”

The dispute came down to two words from an interview Biden gave Barkan at the start of July. Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), speaks with the use of a device that reads his eye movements and translates them to an artificial voice. The interview, one of many that Barkan had done with Democratic presidential candidates, turned at one point to whether Biden would shift some funding from armed policing to social welfare.

“We can reduce the responsibilities assigned to police and redirect some of the funding into social services, mental health counseling, and affordable housing,” Barkan said, suggesting one police shooting in particular might have been prevented had a “wellness counselor” been sent instead of an armed officer. “Are you open to that kind of reform?”

“I’ve proposed that kind of reform,” Biden said. “And by the way, the idea, though — that’s not the same as getting rid of or defunding all the police.”

After Biden laid out his own reform ideas, Barkan asked, “But do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Biden said.

That answer has been featured in advertising worth millions of dollars that accuses Biden of wanting to “defund” police. But Barkan was adamant that the Democratic nominee didn’t say that, complicating efforts to portray Biden, who has proposed new funding for community policing, as a supporter of “defunding” police.

“Though Ady would have loved Joe Biden to announce in this interview that he is in favor of defunding the police, the Vice President never said it,” Liz Jaff, the president of Barkan’s Be A Hero political fund, said in a statement to CNN last month.

The Internet is filled with false or misleading videos. The Post’s Fact Checker built a guide to help you spot the manipulation. (Video: The Washington Post)

The video shared by Scalise altered Barkan’s question, making it sound like Biden was being asked a more direct question. The new clip moved a quote from Barkan’s computerized speech between the word “funding” and Biden’s “absolutely” answer: “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding for police?”

In an email, Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine said the video had been “condensed … to the essence of what he was asking, as is common practice for clips run on TV and social media, no matter the speaker” and that viewers were not misled.

“We paired the police portion with Barkan’s final question for clarity because we couldn’t include an entire 3-minute clip in a one minute montage,” Fine said. “We believe Biden’s position and answer is clear regardless: When asked twice, he says ‘yes’ he is open to redirecting funding away from the police, and that is clear in our video.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the video, calling for Scalise to “take his doctored video down and apologize immediately.”

“@SteveScalise tried to steal @AdyBarkan’s health care with more than 60 votes to repeal or undermine Americans’ health care,” Pelosi tweeted, referring to Republican attempts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. “Now, he’s trying to steal Ady’s words by lying.”

When he’s been asked directly about the “defund the police” concept, Biden has frustrated critics on the right and left by rejecting it. In an interview with ABC News last week, Biden repeated much of what he’d told Barkan about hiring social workers and making other community investments, while reiterating he would not cut police funding.

“I don’t want to defund police departments,” Biden said, referring to annual White House budgets that have recommended billions of dollars in cuts to the Office of Justice Programs, which doles out grants for local law enforcement. “The only guy that actually put in a bill to actually defund the police is Donald Trump.”

President Trump falsely claimed Democratic nominee Joe Biden supports defunding police during his convention speech on Aug. 27. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a statement Sunday, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates called the Scalise video a “deep fake,” a term used to describe misleading videos and accused Republicans of running against a fictional version of Biden.

“To doctor the words of an extraordinarily courageous and selfless American with a disability who speaks with the assistance of eye gaze technology, and who shows more strength, resolve, and care for others in every millisecond than Donald Trump has in his entire life is both morally abhorrent and a sign of utter panic,” Bates said.

By late Sunday afternoon, Scalise had defended the video in a pair of tweets, suggesting any talk of “redirecting” funds meant taking it away from law enforcement. But the rest of the video, which accused Democrats of stoking unrest, contained other clips that had been ripped from context.

In one clip, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told an audience to “get up in the face of some congresspeople.” In the next, a man is seen harassing two people leaving the White House after the president’s Republican convention acceptance speech. But Booker made those remarks two years ago to the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, and the audience consisted of activists who were heading to the Capitol to lobby members of Congress.

“Please, don’t just come here today and go home,” Booker said. “Go to the Hill today. Please, get up in the face of some congresspeople, and tell them: Look, I’m advocating for easy stuff. It’s not complicated.”