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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at The Center for American Progress CAP 2019 Ideas Conference on Wednesday
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at The Center for American Progress CAP 2019 Ideas Conference on Wednesday
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Explainer: Why is Facebook allowing a doctored video of 'drunk' US Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stay online?

The social media giant has been criticised after altered footage of Pelosi was posted online this week.
May 26th 2019, 6:11 PM 33,118 40

FACEBOOK HAS DEFENDED a decision to allow altered footage of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi to remain online, despite the company’s confirmation that it was manipulated.

The footage, which purports to show Pelosi slurring and stuttering during a speech, gained traction earlier this week after it was posted to the social media website.

It emerged amid a bitter public row between Pelosi and Donald Trump, which has seen the Democratic congressional leader trade insults with the US president over mental health.

But despite warnings that sophisticated video manipulation could form part of future disinformation campaigns in the US, the company has refused to remove it.

And while Google has announced it has removed the video from YouTube, Twitter has also allowed the video to remain on its platform.

It raises further questions around how much tech companies are facilitating the spread of fake news and whether they are serious about taking measures to prevent it.

Here’s how the story has unfolded.

The footage

On Thursday, it emerged that video footage purporting to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her words was circulating widely across social media platforms.

The distorted video was based on real footage from a Center for American Progress conference in Washington the previous day.

It shows Pelosi claiming that Donald Trump was engaged with Russia in a cover-up regarding the result of 2016 US presidential election.

During her speech, Pelosi said that Trump was “obstructing justice” by refusing to cooperate with investigations by Democrats in Congress, according to satellite TV network C-SPAN, which published the original video online.

She also expressed hope that those close to Trump would stage an intervention “for the good of the country” and characterised the president’s actions as a potentially “impeachable offence”.

Congress Russia Probe Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arrive to a press conference about a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday morning Source: J. Scott Applewhite/PA Images

By Friday morning, an altered version of the video had racked up millions of views.

One version posted on Facebook by conservative site Politics WatchDog has been viewed 2.3 million times, and was also circulating on YouTube and Twitter.

In the comment section of the post, Facebook users called Pelosi “drunk”, “a babbling mess”, and suggested she may have taken prescription drugs or suffered a stroke.

The slowed-down video was also shared by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Twitter, although he later deleted the tweet.

Trump himself tweeted a separate Fox News video of Pelosi on Thursday, which appeared to have been edited to focus on sections of a speech in which she stuttered and mispronounced certain words.

Fake news

On Friday, The Washington Post reported on the spread of the video on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, adding that the footage was appearing in the comments sections of message boards and regional news outlets.

It also claimed to have carried out an analysis of the distorted video which showed that it had been slowed down to a quarter of its original speed.

An analysis by AFP journalists also found it had been slowed to around 75 percent of its normal speed.

According to the Washington Post, the pitch of Pelosi’s voice had also been altered to disguise the fact that the video had been slowed.

“To possibly correct for how that speed change would deepen her tone, the video also appears to have been altered to modify her pitch, to more closely resemble the sound of her natural speech,” the report said.

However, while Facebook also announced that its third-party fact-checkers had identified the video “false”, it said the company would not remove the footage from its website.

False information policy

Rather than deleting the video, Facebook said it would “heavily reduce” its appearance in people’s news feeds.

The Washington Post quotes a statement from the company saying it had no rules against the posting of fake information on Facebook.

“We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true,” the social media giant said.

US news network CNBC also quoted a Facebook spokesman as saying the company was trying to “find the right balance” between free expression and authenticity.

“Just because something is allowed to be on Facebook doesn’t mean it should get distribution,” the spokesman said.

“In other words, we allow people to post it as a form of expression, but we’re not going to show it at the top of news feed.”

The video has continued to be shared on Twitter, which did not comment when asked by multiple US news sources on Friday whether it would remove the footage.

However, YouTube (which is owned by Google) has removed the video from its platform after determining that edits to the original footage violated its terms.

“YouTube has clear policies that outline what content is not acceptable to post and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a spokesperson for the company told CNBC.

“These videos violated our policies and have been removed.”

‘Anybody can do this’

While there has been limited action from social media companies on the fake Pelosi video, the footage raises concerns about the spread of misinformation.

Experts on “deepfake” videos claim that videos such as this showcase the potential of digitally altered videos to push fraudulent claims.

Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California, told Associated Press that such videos are not difficult to create.

“It is not somebody using the latest technology,” he said. “Anybody can do this.”

He also said that the video is reminiscent of an altered video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta that was tweeted out by the Trump administration last year.

“What worries me is that these dumb fakes have whipped up the president, the White House, Giuliani and his supporters,” he said.

“What is going to happen when you get these sophisticated fakes?”

Democratic Senator Mark Warner also warned that without action from social media companies, the problem would be exacerbated.

He also told CNN that large platforms did not have sufficient procedures in place to address viral misinformation like the altered footage of Pelosi.

Mark Warner Mark Warner: concerned that problem is going to get worse Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“Viral misinformation is pushed today by simple Photoshop and video editing techniques, but new technologies are going to make this a heck of a lot worse,” he said.

If this story is anything to go by, those looking for a solution to the spread of fake news may be waiting on social media companies for some time yet.

With additional reporting from Associated Press and - © AFP 2019

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Stephen McDermott

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