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The fake video era of US politics arrives on Twitter

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On Wednesday, CNN reporter Jim Acosta had a pointed exchange with the president over immigration duri
 
November 8 · Issue #243 · View online
The Interface
On Wednesday, CNN reporter Jim Acosta had a pointed exchange with the president over immigration during a press conference, resulting in the Trump Administration banning him from the White House. During the exchange, a Trump aide attempted to wrestle his microphone away from him. Today a partisan war broke out over what a video of that incident really showed — and in so doing, seemed to herald the arrival of an era in which manipulated videos further erode the boundaries between truth and fiction.
When Trump insulted Acosta at the press conference, a White House intern approached him and tried to physically remove a microphone from his hands. Their arms touched as the woman reached across Acosta’s body to grab the microphone he was holding in his hand.
Looking back at the video, it does not in fact show Acosta “placing his hands” on the woman. But about 90 minutes after she posted her string of tweets, Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson tweeted out a video of the incident that was doctored to make it look like Acosta chopped the woman’s arm with his hand.
Less than an hour later, [Press Secretary Sarah] Sanders tweeted out the doctored video, writing, “We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video.”
Vox.com’s headline calls the footage in question a “fake Infowars video.” Was it? Charlie Warzel messaged Watson, who told him that he had simply zoomed in one section of the footage, but otherwise left it as is. That led to debates about whether a simple change to the framerate of the video transformed it to make it appear as if Acosta were the aggressor. As Warzel notes, it’s complicated:
Watson’s defense is an issue of semantics — that he altered the video but did not “doctor” it to show something that wasn’t there. Unfortunately, establishing just how the video was changed is complicated. The original video file was created by Watson from a gif file that the Daily Wire tweeted. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the image was distorted by that process. More importantly, the process of converting videos to gifs often results in losing frames from the original video file (in the case of the Daily Wire gif, that means there’s likely frames missing from the original CSPAN video it was made from).
It’s all confusing. There’s even an example in which all parties are mostly correct. Watson’s clip is different than the CSPAN clip because it was taken from a gif and thus missing frames, which could cause the Acosta movement to look faster than it actually was. In that case, one can argue that the video was made faster. If that’s the case, there’s also an argument that Watson is telling the truth — he didn’t personally speed up the video, he just took a clip that was missing frames.
Meanwhile, Shane Raymond, a journalist at “social media intelligence” company Storyful, does a frame-by-frame analysis and concludes that Sanders shared footage that was altered to make certain frames repeat. The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, citing various other analyses, also wrote that the footage had been doctored. Paris Martineau, who also went frame by frame, smartly noted that the video makes the incident seem more dramatic than it was primarily by repeating it three times.
Whatever the case, Warzel worries that today marked a milestone on the road to a dystopia in which everyone “chooses their own reality” based in part on doctored videos.
It’s a concern that has accelerated in recent months with the arrival of “deepfakes,” which could eventually show people doing things they are not actually doing, in perfectly crisp detail. The mere existence of these perfect deepfakes, of course, will cast doubt on the truth of all legitimate video clips.
But this election has shown that it’s real videos, not fake ones, that are likely to cause us the most problems. Jane Lytvynenko wrote this week about a misleading clip that purported to show voter fraud. In reality, it showed a paper jam. Facebook and Instagram removed the video for violating their rules; Twitter left it up, and it has been viewed more than 95,000 times.
Recently departed Facebook security chief Alex Stamos says mislabeled videos are likely to be a much bigger problem than doctored ones for the foreseeable future. “Deepfakes get too much play as a risk compared to mis-framing videos that don’t have technical indicators of falsity,” he tweeted. “There is no [machine-learning] algorithm to find videos that are intentionally mislabeled.”
Nor is there an algorithm that can settle the case of Acosta vs. the White House. Many intelligent people, looking at the same footage, walked away from it with very different conclusions. Those conclusions largely reflected their political views. In other words, they chose their own reality.
Over here in my reality, an aide attempting to wrest a microphone out of the hand of a journalist doing his job is an assault on democracy. But on this day, that seemed to be more or less beside the point, even if the fact that it had happened was not in dispute.

Democracy
Facebook appears to have survived this election cycle
Facebook Had a Good Election Day. But It Can’t Let Up Now.
EU’s Vestager examines Facebook for potential tax probe
Elsewhere
Google announces new sexual assault and harassment rules after mass protest
Why Children’s Fondness for YouTube Puts the Company at Risk
YouTube: We've invested $100 million in Content ID and paid over $3 billion to rightsholders
Russia: Now everyone who uses a messaging app must be identifiable
China’s state-run press agency has created an ‘AI anchor’ to read the news
WeChat reaches 1M mini programs, half the size of Apple’s App Store
Launches
Facebook Portal review: trust fail
Buying a Portal? Facebook Executive Answers Questions on Privacy
Facebook expands its dating feature test to Canada and Thailand
Nintendo Switch Finally Gets a YouTube App
From Data Centers to AI, a Spending Surge at Big Tech Companies ($)
Takes
Facebook’s Nostalgic Mood Isn’t Helping
Using Twitter to hack my brain for good
The Magical Decentralization Fallacy
Coming tomorrow
That Myanmar report. Google in China. Facebook’s war on Isis. The Internet Research Agency. And TikTok!
And finally ...
Dutch man, 69, who 'identifies as 20 years younger' launches legal battle to change age
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and clearly faked videos: casey@theverge.com.
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