Facebook and Twitter have trumpeted major initiatives designed to prevent a repeat of the 2016 election: “massive investments to help protect the integrity of elections” and the implementation of “proactive detection and enforcement efforts.” This week was evidence of how little has changed about the way Facebook and Twitter actually operate — and it’s an ominous sign for 2020.
On Wednesday morning — the day after a high-profile spat between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump — the Facebook-based group Politics WatchDog posted a video of Pelosi discussing the dust-up, slowed to 75 percent of its original speed with her voice altered to make it sound like she was slurring her speech.
Forty-eight hours later, the video, which is still up, has notched 2.4 million views and been shared 47,000 times. It’s just one of the Pelosi videos that have multiplied across social media in recent days, carefully edited to make her seem unwell. The president tweeted one to his 60.5 million Twitter followers on Thursday night, hours after his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tweeted a different one. “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi? Her speech pattern is bizarre,” Giuliani wrote in his tweet, which he later deleted. On Fox News, the clips prompted similar debate about the speaker’s age and mental state.
It all feels very familiar: Video alluding to a serious and mysterious health problem goes viral, is rapidly weaponized by the subject’s political enemies and the erroneous content amplified by sympathetic media. In 2016, we know that bot-nets and trolls operated by the Russian government similarly helped signal-boost conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health.
Almost all of the attention paid to Pelosi’s video occurred after Facebook was alerted to the fact that the video it was hosting had been doctored. The fact that it was doctored didn’t matter, a representative for Facebook explains, because Facebook doesn’t have a policy that stipulates anything you post on Facebook has to be true. For a post to be removed from the site, it has to violate the social network’s community standards — which doesn’t account for videos that have been manipulated in a way that creates a false impression.
The fact that Facebook doesn’t have a policy for “deep fake”-type videos is going to be a growing issue in the future — the same day the Pelosi videos were going viral, there was news that researchers at Samsung’s AI Center in Moscow had figured out a way to generate a convincing video of a person using just a single source image. But the fact that the doctored videos have continued to spread without any intervention from the tech giants speaks to a more fundamental problem that technology of all kinds that is designed to deceive will continue to advance faster than humans can create effective policies around it.
As of Thursday night, almost two full days after the video was posted to Facebook — long after it’s been watched and discussed and digested by millions on the platform, on Fox News and beyond — a Facebook representative tells Rolling Stone the video has been rated “false” by the social network’s fact-checking partners, “so we are now heavily reducing its distribution in News Feed and showing additional context from this fact-checker in the form of a ‘Related Articles’ unit in News Feed where it still appears.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.