The debate over the video highlights an immense gray area when it comes to moderating posts, photos and videos on social media, especially when they’re shared by users with large numbers of followers, many of whom might believe that the clips are an authentic retelling of events.
The video was not a sophisticated “deepfake” or an intricately altered “cheapfake.” The actions actually happened, just not in the order presented, similar to the way many edited videos — including political attack ads — long have portrayed controversial subjects for maximum impact. Interweaving clips from different times is a hallmark of video editing.
Researchers said it’s the intent of the video that should be scrutinized: Was the editing meant to draw attention to real events — or to fudge the boundaries around the truth?
Dave Karpf, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University, said the video was clearly meant to be misleading. “We all know the difference between editing something to make it more clear and editing something to make it more deceptive,” he said.
While the simple edit may not violate Facebook’s or Twitter’s policies, Karpf said, the video should still draw public outrage as “gross and disturbing and a sign of what is probably more to come.”
“This is the stuff we’re probably going to be wading through for the next nine months,” he said. “It’s not the technology of deepfakes we should be worried about: It’s going to be garbage like this, spread through Trump’s microphone and amplified by the rest of the conservative-media apparatus.”
Other researchers said they believed that the video shouldn’t be removed from the sites because such a move — and the precedent it would set — might step on long-standing protections for parodies and other free speech.
Taking down the video “would open door to ban a great deal of parody,” said a Twitter post from Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a free speech advocacy group. “Viewers can tell she didn’t rip up the speech multiple times in the exact same way. Harsh, nasty, underhanded, yes. But parody often is.”
Pelosi’s staff and others in her party were enraged by the decision to leave the video in place.
“The American people know that the President has no qualms about lying to them — but it is a shame to see Twitter and Facebook, sources of news for millions, do the same,” tweeted Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill. He said the video was “deliberately designed to mislead and lie to the American people.”
Facebook said the video did not violate its rules. In a response to Hammill, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone tweeted that the video was effectively fair game: “Are you suggesting the President didn’t make those remarks and the Speaker didn’t rip the speech?”
Twitter said its new rules on manipulated media had not yet gone into effect, so it could not comment on the video. The White House declined to comment.
The video in question appears to have been created by Freedom Fights, a Facebook page run by the pro-Trump group Turning Points USA, which said in the video’s description that Pelosi “hates President Donald J. Trump more than she loves America.” Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts reposted the video Thursday; within a day, the video had been shared tens of thousands of times and racked up more than 5 million views.
The roughly four-and-a-half-minute clip interweaves video of Trump’s guests with Pelosi tearing pages of the speech. Pelosi’s action had earlier prompted its own outcry from Trump and his fellow Republicans, who falsely labeled it “illegal.”
Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), a top Democrat who is leading an investigation into Silicon Valley’s largest companies, said the video is “clearly edited in a way that’s intended to mislead viewers.” In a tweet, he urged Twitter to take it down. So did Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), adding, “They need to have certain standards. Falsity has never been part of our 1st Amendment tradition.”
The video’s edits may seem obvious to people familiar with the political skirmishes over this week’s State of the Union, said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University.
But in the coming months, the label at the top — “Powerful American Stories Ripped to Shreds by Nancy Pelosi” — and the action the video seems to show could prove misleading for people unfamiliar with what really happened.
The video, Donovan said, is not nearly as bad as some other edited videos and political ads from past political campaigns. But it could represent the new normal for political advertising and campaigning online: an edited video, meme or viral campaign, shared by a newsworthy politician and amplified by a supportive audience.
Yet she also said she worried that political figures were increasingly seeking the removal of not just highly manipulated footage but satirical images or videos with which they disagree.
Calling something “disinformation” can be a politically expedient way to get the tech companies’ attention. But researchers worry that overuse of the accusation could muddle the ability to identify the problems the term was first used to describe.
Donovan compared it to “fake news”: Though that term once described a specific kind of false reporting, it lost its power and became a joke as Trump and others began using it to label anything they didn’t like.
“The allegation of disinformation itself has become a political tool,” she said.
For Democrats, manipulated video is a particularly sensitive subject after conservatives last year widely shared a heavily doctored video of Pelosi that made her appear drunk. The incident touched off a major debate about companies’ content-moderation practices in an age when photos and videos can be manipulated using artificial intelligence to make it seem as though people said or did things that never occurred.
The State of the Union video bears some similarities to a political ad late last year from Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, which showed clips of chuckling world leaders overlaid onto footage of Trump.
“The world is laughing at President Trump,” Biden said in a tweet about the video, which has been seen more than 12 million times. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement then that the ad was “deceptively edited — some would say doctored.”