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Next-gen political manipulation: Altered videos of Nancy Pelosi spread online

Ben Bowman

Published

With each successive political campaign, we see new tools being used to spread misinformation. In 2016, social networks were used to target certain groups. After seeing a constant stream of mistruths and outright lies, many voters made their choice without an accurate picture of the candidates and policies on both sides.

Nancy Pelosi

Today, the misinformation war is becoming even more heated. Doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are being shared on social media:

The doctored video has been viewed on Facebook more than 2.4 million times. We don’t know whether these videos are being produced by a single person, a group, or as part of some kind of larger campaign, but the effects can be devastating.

Political misinformation is nothing new, but we’re now seeing extraordinary amplification of these stories thanks to actual politicians and their social media accounts. Last night, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (President Trump’s personal attorney) shared the altered video on Twitter with the message, “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi? Her speech pattern is bizarre.” Giuliani later deleted the tweet.

The President himself shared a highly edited video to push his chosen narrative of Speaker Pelosi.

Any amount of editing can change the slant of a story. We often hear complex conversations summarized in one brief soundbite on the news. Even the selection of a specific photo can paint a positive or negative picture of a candidate. In 2004, Howard Dean’s political campaign was completely derailed because of a scream caught by a microphone:

But the thing is, the people in the room couldn’t hear Dean’s scream. It was incredibly loud in the venue. But because TV networks had access to Dean’s isolated microphone, we didn’t hear the sound in context. It didn’t matter. The die was cast.

So political narratives have been shaped from an out-of-context scream and now, doctored videos. The biggest threat, however, is yet to come. Deepfake videos can make anyone appear to say or do anything. AI can generate fake humans. Just as the computer graphics in Hollywood blockbusters become more convincing, we are quickly closing in on an era when we won’t be able to believe our eyes. And that leads us to a very dangerous place.

George Orwell called it in “1984:”

“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

Except in this case, the evidence being presented to our eyes and ears is being manipulated. Politicians have always lied and mischaracterized their opponents. But we are quickly moving into an era where those lies can be backed up with faked video evidence, then amplified across social media until the damage is too great to overcome.

A quote often misattributed to Mark Twain says, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And that’s been true since before the days when everyone in the world had immediate access to an audience of billions.

The social networks themselves aren’t helping. YouTube took down the altered Pelosi after Axios got in touch with them. Facebook said it would only reduce the video’s reach if they felt it was misleading, but they wouldn’t remove it. Twitter is allowing the altered clip to remain online.  How do you fight back against global platforms and itchy clicking fingers?

It’s up to all of us to slow down before retweeting or sharing something shocking. Today, and in the years to come, the faked videos will become even more sophisticated. It’s up to our vigilance and reliable news organizations to make sure the truth isn’t twisted.

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