This time they came for Pelosi, and they came looking like amateurs. Like it mattered: the crudely edited video of the House Speaker altered to slur her speech has already reached millions of American voters. Wait until the REAL deepfakes come along and we can have some serious fun…or maybe just start a war.
This incident reveals the hollow center of Facebook’s expressed desire to stop disinformation. Their position? “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true”, apparently as long as it doesn’t come from a “fraudulent” page. The upshot: real people can post fake news, but fake people can’t post real news. Makes sense to me!
Ultimately, fake content is just more fodder for the all-important “engagement” that keeps people on Facebook long enough to click on ads. Our attention spans are a commodity, and content that keeps our attention is Facebook’s Holy Grail. All fine and good when we’re talking about fake stunts, as long as no one gets hurt. Likewise with satire, where obviously-altered photos or video can make a powerful political point. The key part is the word “obviously” — satire shades into disinformation when a “satirical” video is presented as truth.
The Pelosi video started with a sports blogger, who shared it to Facebook, where it “surg[ed] through the internet’s well-worn ley lines of credulity and venom”, as Kevin Poulson put it. The next edition may come from farther afield, perhaps courtesy of Russian political agents hoping to disrupt the 2020 elections, and they may be far harder to tell from something true. Political campaigns simply aren’t ready for an environment where just about any story can be wholly made up and spread by people eager to believe everything bad about the other side.
How SHOULD the 2020 campaigns prepare? I explored possible approaches a year ago in a Campaigns & Elections column. To me, a campaign’s best asset is its own supporters, who can push back against disinformation in their own circles, online or otherwise. Campaigns should prepare them in advance, forming social-media response teams and warning them to watch for questionable content and report it when they see it. Campaigns could also “flood the zone” with their own favorable content, hoping to counter the smears without amplifying them. Finally, they should build relationships with reporters, bloggers and other influencers in advance, to help enlist authoritative outside voices on their behalf.
Nancy Pelosi is in a more nebulous position as House Speaker, since she’s a national figure without an organized national following to act on her behalf. In this case, news outlets generally emphasized that the video was fake when they reported on it, but surely only a fraction of the people who encountered it in the wild would have heard that it was edited. Millions probably now believe that Nancy Pelosi was drunk in public, and our whole response as a political system so far seems to depend on the good will of social media platforms, news media, commentators and the public. God help us all.