2020年1月7日 星期二

On Politics Media Watch: How a Misleading Biden Video Spread

It began as a deceptively edited video clip from an obscure Twitter account. Then it made headlines.
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By Nick Corasaniti

Domestic Correspondent, Politics

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging.

It began as a post from an obscure Twitter account with a history of spreading conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein.

The post featured a deceptively edited video, a screenshot of which appears below, from one of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign events that wrongly suggested Mr. Biden was making racist remarks. In fact he was emphasizing the need to change “our culture” around violence toward women.

But the video quickly caught fire on Twitter on New Year’s Day before spreading far and wide on the internet, jumping from verified Twitter accounts to other social platforms to right-wing news sites. Soon, any attempt to contain the spread of the disinformation in the video would prove futile.

Indeed, just a day later, Mr. Biden was asked by a voter in Iowa to clarify his comments as they were wrongfully portrayed in the video.

As disinformation campaigns have upended modern politics, the rapid, viral and organic spread of the Biden video reflects an increasingly common playbook for those seeking to sow chaos and confusion.


To map out how this information spreads, I turned to Ben Decker, a researcher who works with The New York Times and helps us make sense of all this.

1. The blue check mark spark

The earliest and most important dissemination of the video happened on Twitter, Mr. Decker noted. All it takes is a few widely followed, verified Twitter accounts to share a manipulated video to begin the rapid spread of disinformation. (Verified accounts, which are reserved for celebrities, journalists and other public figures, have a blue check mark next to their names.) In this case, a few writers from conservative outlets were the first to share the video.

With the imprimatur of the verified accounts, the video began to pick up traction on Twitter organically, as similarly minded conservative users shared it. According to VineSight, a company that tracks disinformation online, the vast majority of the engagement with the video on Twitter was organic — it was spread by real humans, not by bot networks and the like.

2. Moving off Twitter

Though it’s fast and loud, Twitter’s universe is finite. Disinformation can become even more dangerous when it moves to other platforms, particularly the darker corners of the internet. Within four hours of the initial tweet of the video, it was also posted on 4chan, Facebook and Reddit. On 4chan, the anonymous and unrestricted online message board, six separate threads promoted the video. On Reddit, eight threads were posted in the same amount of time.


Some of the posts on Reddit, however, were from the anti-Biden left — largely vocal supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who were also sharing the video.

On Facebook, the video was shared primarily in closed groups, spreading in both far-left and far-right groups.

The multi-platform spread, Mr. Decker explained to me, both expands the universe of who has been exposed to the disinformation and also makes any attempts to stop it nearly impossible, a virtual whack-a-mole more rigged than a Jersey Shore boardwalk version.

3. Media microphones

Perhaps the biggest amplification of disinformation, Mr. Decker said, can come from news media reports. Whitney Phillips, a professor and author who studies online behavior, has written extensively about how mainstream news coverage can unintentionally amplify problematic content, making a message more culturally impactful than it would have been without any coverage at all.


Looking at the metrics on the initial Twitter video, it would appear that embedding the video on mainstream news sites may have played a central role in boosting its visibility. The video has only about 2,800 retweets on Twitter, yet it has 1.9 million views over all, a relatively uneven ratio that Mr. Decker says may have been tipped by news stories. (Those news stories would have allowed many people to view the video without anyone retweeting it.)

Of course, some news outlets had every intention of embedding the video. The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site, quickly wrote an article embedding the deceptive video with the clear goal of validating it.

But other outlets, including GQ and New York Magazine, embedded the video in posts that were debunking it. Yet, as Ms. Phillips notes, simply posting the source content can have the unintended consequence of spreading it.

This, Mr. Decker says, is often the central goal of a disinformation campaign, completing a “feedback loop” through major news outlets, which can often lead to searches on Google for the topic and feed more interest in the disinformation.

It’s a playbook that we could begin seeing with increasing frequency in 2020, Mr. Decker said.

“Disinformation agents — whether domestic political operatives, far-right trolls or those acting purely for the ‘lulz’ — operate a bit like brush fire arsonists, setting small blazes in anonymous forums, where it becomes easy for sparks to jump over the firebreaks and move to more mainstream platforms,” he said. “Unfortunately, the media has an unintentional tendency of getting caught up in this process far too often as well.”

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Ad of the week: Another candidate confronts the N.R.A.

Unite the Country

They’re haunting scenes: teenagers holding one another’s shoulders, being marched out of a school after a shooting. More students boarding a bus under the watchful guard of an armed law enforcement officer.

Gun control has seemingly taken a back seat as an issue in the Democratic primary, which has been dominated by impeachment in Washington, conflict in Iran and sprawling debates over health care and wine caves. But a super PAC supporting Joe Biden began airing a new ad on New Year’s Day, taking on the National Rifle Association.

The message

Images of the aftermath of school shootings are spliced with darkly lit, empty school hallways, as on-screen text promotes Mr. Biden’s record on guns: “He passed background checks” and “He passed an assault weapons ban.” Mr. Biden did help pass federal background checks in 1993 and was an architect of an assault weapons ban that passed in 1994.

In the background, set against echoing piano chords and strings, is Mr. Biden’s voice: “It took me seven years to get the first ban put in place. We should not stop; 100,000 people are gunned down in America in the last decade. I refuse to give up.”

It’s a sobering take on a popular line in Mr. Biden’s stump speech: that he will take the fight directly to the N.R.A.

The takeaway

Mr. Biden, like many of the Democratic presidential candidates, is being outspent on the airwaves by Michael Bloomberg, notably in Super Tuesday states like California, where Mr. Bloomberg is often the only candidate advertising.

Mr. Bloomberg routinely points to his work on gun control. He has sought to counterbalance the N.R.A. through his work with national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, and he spent more than $100 million to elect candidates with similar gun safety positions in the 2018 midterms. His campaign released an ad on Tuesday featuring a testimonial from Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, about Mr. Bloomberg’s record on gun safety.

The ad from Unite the Country, the super PAC that formed to help shore up Mr. Biden amid his fund-raising struggles last year, helps the candidate stay in the gun rights conversation.

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