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Doctored Pelosi videos offer a warning: The internet isn't ready for 2020

Image: Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 23, 2019. Copyright Mandel Ngan AFP - Getty Images
Copyright Mandel Ngan AFP - Getty Images
By Jason Abbruzzese with NBC News Tech and Science News
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The Pelosi videos and their narratives were not the product of advanced technology, nor did they take a different route to prominence than previous misinformation efforts.


The 2020 election is set to face some very 2016 challenges when it comes to the spread of misinformation.

The emergence of distorted videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, edited to make her appear to have trouble speaking, has provided a stark reminder that technology often remains an enemy of truth in politics, just as it was four years ago. The core issues of social media virality, confirmation bias and the fringe internet-to-conservative media pipeline have endured from 2016 and do not even need particularly sophisticated techniques to do real mischief.

The videos also offer a warning that concerns about election interference from foreign countries should not overshadow the ability of domestic actors to influence what people see, hear and think. President Donald Trump himself distributed one of the carefully edited videos on Twitter Friday morning, and though he denied knowing that they were altered, he continued pushing their underlying theme that Pelosi is somehow impaired.

Alex Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer, said that the Pelosi video illustrated two of the biggest risks ahead of the 2020 election: lightly edited "shallow fakes" that use real and often lightly edited footage to manipulate the discourse, and the power of domestic misinformation efforts.

"A video that is slightly deceptively edited can be the source of very divisive and possibly false narratives," said Stamos, who is an NBC News contributor and adjunct professor at Stanford University. "With all of our focus on the Russians, we've forgotten that domestic actors are the most likely to have insight into the kinds of narratives that will become viral and will have a big impact on people's beliefs in American institutions and individuals."

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all taken steps to eliminate foreign manipulation campaigns and limit the flow of misinformation after the 2016 election. And politicians and academics have also sought to thwart what is seen as the next generation of misinformation technology that can produce realistic video and audio manipulation, so-called "deep fakes."

But the Pelosi videos and their narratives were not the product of advanced technology, nor did they take a different route to prominence than previous misinformation efforts. Altering the Pelosi videos required only basic video editing software that is now included on most computers and can also be donein web browsers.

Multiple edited videos of Pelosi have circulated on the internet in recent days, spreading through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, all boosted by supporters of the Trump administration keen to portray the speaker as having mental issues. One video on Facebook, which was debunked by The Washington Post, had accrued more than 2.4 million views by Friday morning. Facebook said on Friday that it would reduce the distribution of the video into users' News Feeds.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that racially divisive rhetoric and misinformation has flourished on social media ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections.

The videos have served a purpose for Trump supporters eager to push back against Pelosi's comments about the president's mental fitness for office, which have been met by similar retorts from Trump about Pelosi. Those sentiments questioning Pelosi's accuity have made their way into more mainstream conservative media outlets, including Fox Business Network, which edited together its own clip of Pelosi stumbling over her words during a press conference.

On Thursday night, the president tweeted the clip along with the text "'PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.'"

Even as the videos have been debunked, they have shifted the conversation in conservative media. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, tweeted a Pelosi video and later deleted it. He justified it with a follow-up tweet calling it a "caricature exaggerating her already halting speech pattern." By Friday morning, guests on Fox News morning show "Fox & Friends" pushed the idea that Pelosi was slurring her words.

Similar dynamics played out during the 2016 election, when far-right conspiracy theorists concocted health issues about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, which were then echoed by Trump supporters, including Giuliani. Those conspiracies centered on particular photos and edited videos of Clinton that were offered as proof of her health issues.

Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, predicted that the Pelosi videos would be the first of many.

"We're going to see many more cheap fake videos as it becomes the new dirty trick," Donovan said.

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