On Saturday, White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino posted a video that appeared to show Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden losing his train of thought and then concluding “we can only re-elect Donald Trump.” Trump’s followers naturally cackled with delight.
In reality, Scavino’s clip cut Biden off mid-sentence. What he actually said was, “we can only re-elect Donald Trump if in fact we engage in this circular firing squad. It’s gotta be a positive campaign.”
After outrage from Biden supporters, Facebook slapped the video with a notice warning that the video contained “Partly false information checked by independent fact-checkers.” To actually watch the video, users had to click on a small “See video” button.
Scavino posted the same video to Twitter. On Sunday, Washington Post reporter Cat Zakrzewski posted a screenshot of Twitter labeling the video “Manipulated media.” But when I looked at the same tweet on Monday morning, I couldn’t find a “manipulated media” warning.
In an emailed statement, a Twitter spokesperson said that this was a glitch in Twitter’s software. According to Twitter, the “manipulated media” tag shows up in search results and Twitter timelines for Scavino’s tweet. But it isn’t shown in “tweet detail” pages, when a tweet is viewed on its own. Twitter says it’s working on a fix.
The video seems tailor-made to create headaches for America’s social media giants. This wasn’t a deepfake video, where Biden was shown saying something he didn’t actually say. It also wasn’t deliberately slowed down to make him look senile like an infamous video of Nancy Pelosi.
Rather, this video simply cut Biden off mid-sentence. The result is certainly misleading, but it’s debatable whether it was “doctored.”
The larger problem for the social media giants is that politicians and their supporters regularly highlight short clips of their opponents’ statements. The opponents frequently argue that their words were taken out of context. It’s not hard to imagine why Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t want to start refereeing every one of these disputes—a decision in either direction is going to enrage partisans on one side or the other.
At the same time, this Biden case is pretty egregious. Once you’ve watched the full context of Biden’s remarks, you realize he was clearly not calling for Donald Trump’s re-election. So given Facebook and Twitter’s commitment to fighting misinformation on their platforms, it’s hard for them to stand by and do nothing.