Pro-Trump disinformation efforts could tilt the entire election — if media outlets and tech companies let it happen
The reaction to a barrage of deceptively edited clips shows why Trump’s campaign has little incentive to tell the truth
In January 2017, my colleague Matt Gertz wrote a piece titled “What Journalists Can Do When The President Is A Liar” in which he urged the press to rethink the way presidents are covered in the context of President-elect Donald Trump:
Journalists typically treat presidential statements as both newsworthy and generally trustworthy until proven otherwise. Trump is hardly the first president to dissimulate. But unlike his predecessors, Trump does not lie strategically or rarely. He lies habitually, on matters great and small. By following their typical practice and reporting the president-elect’s comments as both factual and significant, reporters are doing a disservice to their audience, which is left with the impression that what Trump has said is both true and substantive.
Since taking office, Trump has continued to lie about all manner of things, whether it be his false claim that The New York Times sent a letter to subscribers apologizing for negative coverage of his campaign, his wild exaggerations on the size of the crowd at his inauguration, or the more recent and much more consequential laundry list of lies he’s shared about the COVID-19 pandemic this year. The Washington Post’s count of Trump’s lies as president crossed the 20,000 mark on July 9.
Trump was not changed by the office upon his swearing-in, and unfortunately, neither was the press.
Throughout all of this, mainstream media organizations have continued to offer the same level of deference to Trump as they have previous presidents, boosting his objectively false statements on social media and in stories, often without noting that what he said wasn’t true. This is precisely what Gertz was warning against in his 2017 post. Now, this uncritical amplification of Trump’s misinformation comes at a time when the press needs more than ever to shore up its standing as society’s fourth estate, a bulwark against antidemocratic authoritarianism. Instead, this failure of the press has enabled a truly destructive reelection campaign strategy.
With Trump’s potential reelection just weeks away, he and his supporters have ramped up disinformation efforts well aware that there’s no one willing to stop them.
In March, for the first time, Twitter slapped a “manipulated media” label on something tweeted by White House social media director Dan Scavino and retweeted by Trump. The tweet included a video of Democratic nominee Joe Biden making what seemed to be an accidental endorsement of Trump.
“Excuse me. We can only reelect Donald Trump,” Biden says in the edited clip, omitting the second half of his statement. “Excuse me. We can only reelect Donald Trump if in fact we get engaged in this circular firing squad here. It’s got to be a positive campaign,” he says in the full video.
On August 29, Trump ally and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) shared a video on Twitter that edited the words said during an interview with Biden by activist Ady Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and uses assistive technology to speak. Scalise added the words “for police” to a question Barkan asked about funding things that might mitigate crime such as social services and mental health counseling. The goal of Scalise’s deceptive editing was to make it seem as though Biden was in favor of defunding the police, a position he has repeatedly said he does not support.
Twitter again added a “manipulated media” flag to Scalise’s tweet following backlash. Scalise later took the post down, but stood by the video.
On August 30, Scavino shared another edited clip. In this one, the clip superimposed an image of Biden over footage from a 2011 interview between a Bakersfield, California-based news show and actor Harry Belafonte. This was edited together with a snoring sound effect to make it look as though Biden had fallen asleep in the middle of a TV appearance, though this obviously was not true. Twitter again applied the “manipulated media” flag to the post, leaving it up. It wasn’t until the video’s copyright holder filed a takedown request that Twitter removed the post altogether.
Belafonte said of Scavino’s use of that clip, “They keep stooping lower and lower. A technical glitch in an interview I did 9 years ago now becomes another one of their lies, more of their fake news. I beg every sane American-please vote them out. I knew many who gave their life for the right to vote. Never has it been so vital to exercise that right.”
On August 31, Trump’s campaign tweeted a clip of Biden saying, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” a complete distortion of what Biden actually said: “Since they have no agenda or vision for a second term, Trump and Pence are running on this, and I find it fascinating. 'You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America.’ And what's their proof? The violence we're seeing in Donald Trump's America.”
Yet again, Twitter slapped the “manipulated media” label to the post, but not before the video had racked up hundreds of thousands of views. Later, the campaign defended the post, tweeting, “To all the triggered journalists who can’t take a joke about their candidate, it’s not our fault Joe Biden was dumb enough to say this on camera.”
The press and tech companies need to incentivize truthfulness, and that means ensuring that the political and social cost of lying outweighs the benefits.
Would the Trump campaign have posted the deceptively edited clip of Biden if there was a chance that its entire account would be suspended from the platform? Would Trump have repeatedly claimed that just 6% of COVID deaths were actually because of COVID if newspapers and nightly news broadcasts insisted on doing more than just quickly noting that what he said wasn’t true and moving on?
It used to be treated as a scandal when the public learned of an instance of the president lying to the American people, but now it’s just an accepted fact of daily life that something the president says to us today will likely turn out to be untrue. If the press had taken Trump’s candidacy seriously, holding him to the same standards as other candidates, it’s possible he wouldn’t have ever become president. Had journalists stopped offering Trump the benefit of the doubt, he would have been forced to either lie less often or face a barrage of nonstop criticism for his dishonesty. Fact-checking is important, but we’re beyond the point of simply being able to correct our way out of the situation the world is in. Fact checks can’t simply be something brought up in a single segment squeezed between hours of uninterrupted lies, and it cannot be something that gets siloed into its own separate section of news coverage.
The many lies of Trump’s presidency have been enabled by the press and by social media companies afraid to take real action to stop the spread of false information. As November’s election approaches, it’s become clear that disinformation is no longer a tactic for his campaign, but the tactic. The extent to which that tactic will be successful will depend on whether the press is willing to cover his campaign the way it should have all along, and if tech and social media companies are willing to hold him and his allies to the same standards as every other user.
In July, Trump wrongly claimed that Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) issued a document outlining a plan “to abolish our police departments.” In June, he shared a deceptively edited video made to look like a CNN segment. In May, he lied about a “rogue Secretary of State” in Michigan sending 7.7 million absentee ballots to voters across the state. This is who he is, who he’s always been, and who he will always be.
Trump and his allies keep telling lies, and they will continue to do so as long as the benefits of lying outweigh the costs. It’s because of a deferential news media and timid social media companies that the cost of telling blatant lies remains so low. If the worst thing to come of a manipulated Twitter video is a tiny label applied to a tweet long after its engagement has already peaked, it makes perfect sense to continue to spread increasingly brazen false claims and deceptive footage in hopes of influencing voters’ actions.
Once you’ve hit 20,000 lies, what are a few more on the pile?