A series of deceptively edited and misleading videos shared by prominent Republicans have run up millions of views across Facebook and Twitter in just the past few days. And while both companies have pledged to combat misinformation, their responses to these videos followed a familiar pattern: often they act too late, do too little, or don’t do anything at all.
Between Sunday and Monday, high-profile Republicans, including President Donald Trump, shared at least four misleading videos online.
One that circulated widely was a false video about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden posted to the Twitter account of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. After an outcry, including from a person in the video who had words put in his mouth in order to distort what Biden was saying, Twitter took the action it takes in such instances, labeling the video as “manipulated media.”
The manipulated media label is just that, however — a label appearing below the video when people look at the specific tweet to which it has been applied. It’s small and potentially missed by users, and though it may potentially make some users pause before sharing a given video, it does not actually stop them if they decide to go ahead anyway.
Scalise or his staff posted the same video to Facebook, but the company took no action and declined to comment. (Scalise eventually took the video off Twitter and Facebook himself as a result of the outcry.)
Another video containing misinformation was shared on Twitter by White House social media director Dan Scavino Sunday evening. The video was edited to make it falsely appear as if Biden was asleep during a TV interview. By the time Twitter labeled it as manipulated, roughly 18 hours after Scavino tweeted it — and at least 24 hours after the video had started circulating on the platform thanks to tweets from other users — it had roughly 1.3 million views. Monday night, Twitter removed the video entirely, not because it was misinformation but due to a copyright claim. By then it had 2.4 million views.
Though the effectiveness of the “manipulated media” label and other such labels is unclear at best, Twitter does appear to be becoming increasingly willing to use them to call out misinformation from politicians. Meanwhile, although Facebook has hired a global network of fact-checkers, for the most part they are not allowed to fact-check politicians, a policy that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has vigorously defended.
But Facebook has proven willing to make some exceptions to that policy, as well as to Zuckerberg’s now-standard line that a company like his should not be an arbiter of truth.
Facebook says it won’t tolerate misinformation it determines could cause harm, like false claims about Covid-19. A few weeks ago the company removed a video posted by Trump in which, during an interview, he falsely claimed that children are “almost immune” to the virus. Twitter removed the video, too.
Neither company appears willing to apply their policies regarding medical misinformation to misinformation from US politicians that could mislead voters or undermine November’s election, though (expect perhaps in exceptional circumstances, like someone posting the wrong date of the election). And if the past few days are any indication, that could mean they will continue to serve as conduits and amplifiers for a flood of misinformation.
Below, a fact-check of the four recent videos and a look at the action the two companies took regarding them.
A deceptively snipped Biden quote
The tweet: On Monday the Trump campaign’s “War Room” account tweeted a three-second clip of Democratic nominee Joe Biden saying, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Why it was dishonest: The campaign took Biden’s comments from a Monday speech wildly out of context. Contrary to the video’s suggestion, Biden did not confuse himself with Trump.
Biden’s actual comments were coherent. He said that while “Trump and Pence” are claiming “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” the fact is that they are doing so by citing violence that is occurring “in Donald Trump’s America.”
“These are not images of some imagined Joe Biden America in the future. These are images of Donald Trump’s America today,” Biden continued.
The outcome: Twitter labeled the tweet with a “manipulated media” tag.
A falsely labeled crime video
The tweet: On Sunday, Trump retweeted a video captioned “Black Lives Matter/Antifa.” The video, posted by a White nationalist, showed a 2019 crime in which a Black man shoved a White woman on a New York City subway platform.
Why it was dishonest: This assault had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement or with Antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists. The man arrested in the incident has a long history of offenses on the New York City transit system.
The outcome: None. The tweet remained up, unlabeled, as of Monday afternoon.
A fake Biden interview
The tweet: White House social media director Dan Scavino shared on Twitter a video of Biden snoring on camera as a news anchor in Bakersfield, California tried to get him to wake up for an interview.
Why it was dishonest: This incident never happened.
The footage of the anchor — Leyla Santiago, now of CNN — was taken from a 2011 attempted interview with entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, who had his eyes closed and did not respond to her exhortations to “wake up.”
The video Scavino shared also added loud snoring sounds, which are not audible in the real Belafonte footage. (Belafonte later said he wasn’t sleeping, just meditating, and that a technical glitch prevented him from hearing Santiago.)
The footage of Biden, meanwhile, was taken from a 2020 video conversation with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Biden looked downward, his eyes appearing at least partially closed, for some of the conversation, but he was certainly not snoring.
The outcome: Twitter labeled the tweet with a “manipulated media” tag. The company eventually removed it due to a copyright claim. The video had been viewed 2.4 million times by Monday evening when it was removed.
A false addition to a Biden exchange
The tweet and Facebook post: Attacking Democrats over their supposed radicalism, Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Minority Whip, tweeted a video on Sunday that purported to show a video exchange between Biden and progressive activist Ady Barkan. Barkan has ALS and speaks using a computerized artificial voice.
The Scalise version of the exchange had Barkan asking Biden, “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding for police?” and Biden responding, “Yes, absolutely.”
Why it was dishonest: Barkan did not say “for police” in the actual question that prompted the “Yes, absolutely” reply. The Scalise video took those words from a previous Barkan question and attached them to this one.
The outcome: Scalise deleted the video after Twitter identified it as “manipulated media,” saying that he did so because of a request from Barkan.
Facebook did nothing about the video, and declined to comment. Scalise deleted the video from Facebook.