Say you run a large social network in which your most zealous users frequently discuss their politics. In 2020, one way they are going to do this is through the sharing of memes — pithy, punchy photos and videos designed for maximum partisan impact. Some of these memes will draw on actual facts; others will simply be insults. The most troublesome memes to deal with will be the ones that draw on real life but manipulate it in some way. These manipulations can be an essential part of satire, parody, and criticism. They can also trick people into believing a hoax. It’s up to you to draw a bright line. Where do you draw it?
The question of manipulated media has come up in a big way twice in the past week. The first came when Twitter said it would label some manipulated and synthetic images starting next month. Here’s Adi Robertson in The Verge
Twitter will ban faked pictures, video, and other media that are “deceptively shared” and pose a serious safety risk. The company just announced
a new policy on synthetic and manipulated media — a category that encompasses sophisticated deepfake videos, but also low-tech deceptively edited content. In addition to banning egregious offenders, Twitter will label some tweets as “manipulated media” and link to a Twitter Moment that provides more context.
The second appearance of manipulated media in the headlines came after the State of the Union address, when President Trump shared on his Twitter account a video that purported to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up his speech during a series of feel-good moments during the speech. Here’s Drew Harwell and Tony Romm in the Washington Post
The viral video shows President Trump delivering his State of the Union address, with a very notable alteration. As he commemorates “Young Women Receiving Scholarships” and “Child Healthcare Successes,” the video repeatedly cuts away to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of the speech.
It didn’t actually happen that way: Pelosi (D-Calif.) tore the pages only after Trump finished what she later called his “manifesto of mistruths.” But Trump on Thursday shared it anyway, sending it to millions of users on Facebook
— and sparking sharp criticism from Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, who labeled the video “doctored
” and “fake
,” and demanded that the sites remove it. The companies refused.
Lying has a long tradition in American politics
. So why have the Pelosi videos created a panic? One, they erode our shared sense of reality by throwing into question the legitimacy of video evidence, a technology that before now we have generally regarded as trustworthy. And two, they suggest that in the future we will be unable to reliably tell fact from fiction, particularly on matters of intense public debate. (I think there’s also probably a third fear here: that huge numbers of people will be misled into voting for the “wrong” candidate because they fell for one or more hoaxes.)
Disagreements over the video triggered a spat on Twitter on Friday between Drew Hammill, Mrs. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, and Andy Stone, a longtime Facebook spokesman. Mr. Hammill urged Facebook and Twitter to take down the video because it was “deliberately designed to mislead and lie to the American people.”
To that, Mr. Stone responded, “Sorry, are you suggesting the President didn’t make those remarks and the Speaker didn’t rip the speech?”
Eight minutes later, Mr. Hammill shot back: “what planet are you living on? this is deceptively altered. take it down.”
This is a perfect American debate over platforms in 2020, because it involves two people talking past one another without acknowledging any of the relevant tradeoffs, on a platform that rewards them for it with digital hearts.
Still, in this case, I’m with Facebook and Twitter — this video should not be removed from the internet. As Stone notes, Pelosi did rip up Trump’s speech on camera — and she did not appear to avoid tearing up the nice bits where Trump praised a soldier or handed out a scholarship. In fact, the whole point of tearing up the speech on camera was for the act to be widely viewed and discussed. It’s odd to engineer a moment like this one, purpose built for social media, and then try to get a meme of it taken down.
Pelosi’s people argue that showing the clips out of order represents an unacceptable distortion. But the video clearly re-uses the clip of Pelosi tearing the speech multiple times, making the fact that it’s a chop job self-evident. Viewed in that light, Hammill’s complaint reads more like film criticism than a call for platform policy reform.
The truth is that there’s likely no way to draw a line requiring the Pelosi video to be taken down that would also permit the kind of political speech we see every day on television. Any criticism that doesn’t reckon with that fact strikes me as fundamentally glib.
Of course, it’s also the case that political discourse on television — particularly cable television — is often terrible. A platform can embody high ideals of free speech and still be a pretty terrible place to become informed. It would be good for the country if, on that metric at least, Facebook and Twitter aimed much higher.