House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that Facebook’s refusal to take down an altered video of her shows that the company’s leaders were active contributors to online disinformation and “willing enablers” of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Pelosi’s comments to KQED News, her first public response to the video since The Washington Post first reported its spread online last week, revealed a dramatic escalation of tensions between the Democratic leader and the world’s most popular social network.
“We have said all along, ‘Poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians.’ I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false. I think it’s wrong,” she said, according to a transcript of the conversation provided by Pelosi’s office. “They’re lying to the public. . . . I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election."
“For me, I’m in the arena, I’ve been the target all along,” Pelosi added. But “I wonder what they would do if [Facebook chief executive] Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t portrayed, you know, slowed down, made to look” drunk, she said. If it was “one of their own, would this be — is this their policy? Or is it just a woman?”
Facebook, which declined to comment, has acknowledged the video is doctored but declined to remove it, saying in a statement Friday to The Post, “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true."
Pelosi was not made available for comment after her remarks to KQED.
Facebook said it has heavily reduced the video’s appearances in people’s “news feeds,” and that the video now plays alongside a small informational box linking to fact checks indicating it is false. When someone attempts to share the video, Facebook issues a pop-up box telling the user there is “additional reporting” on the video but still allows it to be viewed and shared.
But the videos’ spread on Facebook has continued despite those efforts. When The Post first reported last Thursday that the video, which had its speed and sound altered to make Pelosi appear to slur her words, was spreading online, it had been viewed more than 1 million times.
That viewership has since more than doubled, with one version of the video now having more than 2.8 million views, 30,000 comments and 38,000 shares. President Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was among those who tweeted the video, though he later deleted his post.
Monika Bickert, a Facebook vice president for product policy and counterterrorism, said Friday on CNN that the company would remove the video only if it originated from a fraudulent account or posed a threat to public safety.
“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” Bickert said. She added later, “We aren’t in the news business. We’re in the social media business."
Other Democratic lawmakers have urged Facebook to act more decisively in finding and removing viral disinformation. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, tweeted on Wednesday that he had already had to explain to a voter that the video was doctored. “Facebook must remove the video,” he said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Sunday that “doctored videos like this are not only vile, partisan trash, they are a sad omen of what is to come in the 2020 election season.”
YouTube removed the video and said it violated “clear policies” on acceptable content. Twitter, which has declined to comment, has not removed the video, which can still be seen in some tweets with limited viewership.
The video, whose creator has not yet been determined, fed into a larger battle between Pelosi and Trump over mental fitness and leadership. Pelosi’s supporters have also called it a sexist and misleading attack similar to those lobbed at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Trump on Thursday night tweeted a separate video, taken from Fox Business Network, that spliced together quick cuts of her brief pauses and verbal stutters and said it showed she had stammered through a news conference. Pelosi tweeted afterward that Trump’s tweet was designed to distract from “House Democrats’ great accomplishments” as well as Trump’s “cover-ups and unpopularity.”
Facebook has been criticized for not more quickly detecting or stopping Russian misinformation efforts before the 2016 election. The social network said it had removed more than 3 billion fake accounts between October and March amid heightened investments in content moderation and security.
Pelosi’s comments came the same day that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III offered his first public remarks following his team’s investigation into Russian election interference. “There were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American,” he said.
Facebook initially dismissed the idea that Russian interference and other abuse of its platform had an impact on the 2016 election. Just days following the election, Zuckerberg said that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that fake news had influenced the contest. (He has since apologized for the comment.)
But in the months following that statement, the company began to uncover evidence of large-scale Russian interference, including divisive and polarizing messages that reached tens of millions of Facebook users. Google and Twitter subsequently also unearthed Russian campaigns.
Facebook has since spent large amounts of resources trying to clean up its platform. The company has partnered with fact-checking organizations around the world and has ongoing forensics teams dedicated to weeding out disinformation operations in many countries. It has hired roughly 15,000 content moderators to review problematic posts that are flagged by users or detected by the company’s systems.
Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.