A recent viral video featuring Joe Biden shows just how simple it is to push disinformation with very little effort. The video, which showed Joe Biden speaking during a December campaign stop, caught the presidential candidate saying, “The culture, our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture.”
The 19-second clip made it sound as though Biden was echoing a white nationalist talking point, and it was captioned “Biden proclaims the 'European' identity of America: ‘Our culture is not imported from some African nation.’”
As it turned out, the video was misleading, tightly cut to eliminate the context of what he was saying. In the full comment, it’s clear Biden was talking about sexual assault on college campuses and the permissive culture enabled by our legal system and its European roots. Though many were quick to point out the misleading nature of the clip, a number of prominent Twitter accounts amplified its message. As of this writing, the edited clip has been viewed on Twitter more than 1.9 million times.
The brief tempest over the misleading Biden clip quickly faded into the background as Iran took over the news cycle, but similar dust-ups are bound to emerge as we approach the upcoming election.
There’s nothing new about politicians’ words being taken out of context. What is new is that it’s no longer just opposing campaigns and political operatives doing the editing.
Social media has helped democratize disinformation, and it’s not yet clear what that means for the future of American politics. Virtually anyone can cut up a clip of something a politician says, and there’s little that can be done to stop them. When a rival campaign, political action committee, or media outlet twists words, there’s at least a chance that the source will face backlash for spreading misinformation, harming their credibility. When the person spreading the misinformation is hiding behind an anonymous account, however, that’s not the case.
Some of the most effective lies in the world of politics are more accurately described as selective truths.
Sometimes, this takes the form of a politician or a party making a claim that is technically correct while functionally misleading, such as Republican claims that their 2017 and 2018 bills aimed at replacing the Affordable Care Act would continue to protect people from being denied coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions. While the statement was factually true, it left out the fact that people would still effectively be denied coverage as insurance companies would have been allowed to charge significantly higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions.
Other times, these lies manifest as out-of-context comments from other politicians. While running for re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he uttered the words “If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The broader context made clear that Obama was referring to infrastructure, the internet, and other things funded by tax dollars. Even so, the two isolated sentences made for such a potent attack line that Republicans made the idea into a theme of the party’s nominating convention.
Another such example was an infamous out-of-context quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about the ACA in which she said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” While it was seized on by ACA opponents as evidence that Democrats didn’t know what was in their own health care bill, in the full context of the quote the words “away from the fog of controversy” made clear that she was referring to the public’s understanding of the bill amid aggressive disinformation campaigns about “death panels” and the like.
In the case of the recent viral Biden clip, the account behind the push shared a series of other clips similarly aimed at making the candidate look bad. It was only the “European heritage” tweet that happened to catch on. In one tweet, in which Biden says, “If we focused on violence against women, we’d take our eye off of choice and gender,” he’s seen counting “one” and “two” on his fingers (for “one,” he seems to have counted it on his thumb, but he switched it to his index and middle fingers for “two”). The account described this as “Biden makes the pussy fingering hand sign while talking about women. Baffling.” In another tweet, the account described Biden’s mention of sexual assault against men as “talk[ing] about buttsex.” A third tweet misquotes Biden for effect, reading, “Biden: (paraphrased) ‘You know my favorite reason women drop out of college?’” The actual quote was, “One in five women going off to college will be raped or abused, usually in the first three semesters. You know the greatest reason women drop out of college? Not their grades; sexual abuse.” When put in context, it’s clear that the word “greatest” was being used to refer to quantity, not some bizarre comment about it being the best reason to drop out of college.
Regardless of whether something like the Biden clip helps his opponents in the short run, it contributes to a broader erosion of truth and our ability to believe what we see and hear.
This isn’t limited to a specific political ideology, party, or candidate; nor is it necessarily always a case of someone willingly spreading disinformation. It’s hard to pinpoint the motives behind the people creating misleading clips, but the people amplifying them may be operating in good faith with no intent to deceive.
During a November 11 speech, President Donald Trump told the story of Master Sgt.Roddie Edmonds, a U.S. soldier who defended Jewish members of his regiment against Nazis during World War II. Trump quoted Edmonds saying, “Major, you can shoot me, but you’ll have to kill us all.”
On Twitter, several commenters posted a 12-second clip that made it appear that Trump himself was saying, “You can shoot me, but you’ll have to kill us all.” Whatever anyone thinks of Trump or the story he was telling, that was still an out-of-context representation of what was said, and it was unhelpful.
In June, Daily Wire writer Ryan Saavedra shared an edited clip of Joe Biden, writing, “Joe Biden says that the way he would deal with Senate Republicans who oppose his agenda is with a ‘brass knuckle fight,’ later adds: ‘Let’s start a real physical revolution if you’re talking about it.’” In context, Biden explains exactly what he meant by “brass knuckle fight,” saying that he’d campaign against people who opposed his agenda. As for the “physical revolution” comment, he was calling for the exact opposite: bipartisan governance within the current system.
In April, right-wing media amplified an out-of-context quote from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Speaking in March about anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of 9/11, Omar pushed back against the idea that American Muslims should have to take responsibility for the horrific actions of a few. “[The Council on American-Islamic Relations] was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties,” she said. A paragraph earlier, Omar specifically referred to terrorists, and her overall point was clear: The actions of a few shouldn’t result in the loss of rights for people who had nothing to do with those actions.
Imam Mohamad Tawhidi, a popular account among conservatives known for his views on Islam, posted a 19-second clip, along with this caption, “Ilhan Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists, instead she refers to it as 'Some people did something', then she goes on to justify the establishment of a terrorist organization (CAIR) on US soil.”
There’s obviously nothing in Omar’s speech to suggest that she “does not consider [9/11] a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists.”
In March, the Republican National Committee shared an 18-second clip of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaking in Iowa, titling it “Sen. Gillibrand: Expand Social Security To All Illegal Immigrants.” The clip sparked anger on right-wing media. Appearing on Fox News’ Hannity, Mike Huckabee claimed that Gillibrand wanted to give undocumented immigrants “grandma’s Social Security.” Fox’s “news-side” shows followed suit, spreading that version of Gillibrand’s message.
In context, it’s obvious that Gillibrand was saying that she supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and pointing out that many of them already make contributions to Social Security and pay taxes. There’s a big difference between saying that people who already pay into Social Security should have the right to apply for citizenship and claiming that noncitizens should be given someone else’s Social Security money.
In February, conservative media selectively quoted from an interview Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) did with VegNews about sustainability and meat consumption. Even though Booker specifically said, “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live,” right-wing media ran wild with claims that he “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us” and that he “wants only the rich to eat meat.” Those interpretations had zero basis in fact, as context made clear.
In October 2018, right-wing media ran with a bizarre claim that former Attorney General Eric Holder was calling for violence against Republicans after sharing a clip of him saying “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ No. No. When they go low, we kick them.” Conveniently omitted from the clip was the part in the speech where he added, “Now, when I say, you know, ‘we kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.”
In December 2017, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) whether it was “a good thing” that “91% of middle-income Americans [would] receive a tax cut” in 2018. Sanders responded, saying, “Yes, it is a very good thing. And that’s why we should have made the tax breaks for the middle class permanent. But what the Republicans did is made the tax breaks for corporations permanent, the tax breaks for the middle class temporary.” Unfortunately for Sanders, only the first half of his comment went viral on social media, leading to the idea that he supported the Republican tax bill. This led him to clarify his remarks:
The Republicans are so desperate to spin their disastrous tax plan that they have resorted to taking comments I recently made completely out of context. Instead of this grossly obscene piece of legislation, let’s pass tax reform that permanently benefits all middle-income and working-class families without giving tax breaks to the top 1 percent. Instead of providing huge tax breaks to the rich and large corporations that explode the deficit, which this bill does, millionaires, billionaires and large, profitable corporations must begin paying their fair share of taxes.
It’s possible to disagree with a statement without misleading people about what it said.
You can disagree with what Biden said about sexual assault and culture without promoting a video deliberately edited to make it sound like he was making the case for a white ethnostate. You can believe Sanders was wrong for showing support for certain aspects of the GOP tax bill without cutting a clip aimed at giving the impression that he endorses it. You can even think Omar should have chosen her words about 9/11 more carefully without buying into the idea that she “does not consider it a terrorist attack.”
If any of these soundbites actually meant the same exact thing in fuller context as they do in 15-second-long clips, they wouldn’t be cut to that length to begin with.
Social networks are coming under increasing pressure to address misinformation, but there are no easy answers or quick fixes.
The Biden “European culture” clip remains up, because, as The Hill reported, Twitter has determined that it wasn’t in violation of its rules. When someone edited a video last year to make it seem as though Nancy Pelosi was drunk, Facebook said that it didn’t constitute a policy violation.
On Monday, Facebook announced a new campaign to combat so-called “deepfakes,” or videos created or altered with artificial intelligence. Facebook says that it will remove clips that have been edited “in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of a video said words that they did not actually say” and that are “the product of artificial intelligence or machine learning that merges, replaces or superimposes content onto a video, making it appear to be authentic.”
The site’s announcement goes on to clarify that this doesn’t extend to parody, satire, or “video that has been edited solely to omit or change the order of words.” This means that things like the “drunk Pelosi” video and Biden clip might still still be allowed on its platform, though they’re still subject to fact-checking; that is, unless they're posted as ads by one of the campaigns. On Thursday, the company reaffirmed its stance that lies would continue to be allowed in political ads.
It’s good that Facebook is rolling out its policy on deepfakes before they become the election-altering, news-manipulating wrecking balls they may soon be. For now, however, relatively low-tech tactics are wreaking havoc. This policy is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s not adequate. If the goal is to stop the use of its platform to spread misinformation, Facebook needs to take a stronger stance. Too often, the company has curbed its actions for fear of being criticized by conservatives, time and again favoring the Trump campaign and administration at the public’s expense.
Just this week, The New York Times reported that Facebook head of virtual and augmented reality, Andrew Bosworth, wrote a company memo worried about the risk of harming Trump’s campaign. There’s no evidence that the site has considered anything that would harm his reelection efforts, while there’s ample reason to believe the site has been making efforts to help him win again this November. It’s this type of fear, the fear of being viewed as partisan, that prevents social media companies like Facebook and Twitter from being able to successfully tackle this ever-growing problem of misinformation.