A doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began spreading across social media this week, its playback slowed to make her appear drowsy and slurring her speech. After fact checkers confirmed the video had been doctored, some social platforms enacted outright bans on the video, deleting it from their services, while others permitted the video to be posted and shared and merely decreased its virality. Numerous public figures, pundits and media outlets called for an outright ban on the video, raising the question of whether social platforms should blacklist false content or merely accompany it with a disclosure. As repressive governments around the world increasingly turn to social platforms to wipe away digital criticism and enact bans against material negative to their rule, the stakes have never been higher.
The altered video of Speaker Pelosi circulating widely on social media needed no help from advanced AI. It is not a so-called “deep fake” nor did it require any particularly advanced skills to produce. It is largely a legitimate video played slower than usual, with the effect of making the Speaker appear intoxicated.
When a digitally altered video of President Trump was aired this past January, the video circulated widely on social media with few calls to remove it, the platforms taking little action to remove it and media outlets themselves embedding, retweeting and sharing it widely.
Five months later the specter of “deep fakes” and other forms of digitally altered video appears to have had an impact. Calls for outright bans on the Pelosi video were swift, with some platforms moving rapidly to blacklist it and those that retained it with a warning facing a torrent of criticism and outrage.
Comparing the two incidents, the Pelosi video has generated 7.3 times as much media attention and calls for removal than the Trump video.
Why the difference?
After all, shares of cellphone video of a news broadcast might be more likely to be taken seriously than an anonymous social media clip.
One possible answer is that politicians and the media are waking up to the damaging potential of doctored videos.
While “deep fakes” still require some degree of skill to produce, it is relatively straightforward to edit a legitimate video to portray or say something that did not occur or merely slow it down to portray a leader as intoxicated, ill or slow to respond.
In fact, as the Pelosi video reminds us, even the most simplistic of edits, such as selectively slowing down a video’s playback rate, can be all that’s required to inflict considerable damage.
Where do outlets draw the line between falsified videos designed to inflict harm and political satire designed to provoke conversation and potentially harm their subjects at the same time? A satirical video clearly identified as entertainment can still have a devastating political impact as Chevy Chase reminded us in his parodies of President Gerald Ford that reinforced the president’s least favorable characteristics.
Would a Saturday Night Life sketch today face such widespread calls for blacklisting and rapid bans from social media platforms? Or would it be preserved as legitimate satire? Would the same satire produced by a private citizen and published via social media be viewed as legitimate or would it be removed?
At what point does acceptable satire become an unacceptable falsehood worthy of immediate blacklisting and bans?
Facebook appears to be taking the most cautious approach at this point, allowing users to repost and share the video, but decreasing its distribution and warning users that it has been doctored.
This approach sets the best precedent in that it creates a process for handling both professional political satire and citizen-produced falsified videos.
In a society eager to rid the online world of every falsehood, why would any social media platform leave a confirmed falsified video online?
The answer is that Facebook, by virtue of being a global company, understands the Pelosi video in the global context of what it represents for how governments outside the US treat satire and criticism of their leaders.
The United States enjoys almost unparalleled freedoms regarding permissible speech, even among the world’s freest democracies.
In contrast, many countries enforce strict restrictions on what may be said about government officials. Even the most mundane criticism can lead to jail or even death in some countries, with a growing number of nations passing or entrenching legislation governing what citizens are permitted to say about their officials online.
In these countries the notion of political satire as we understand it in the US is simply non-existent. Whether a major television show or a private citizen posting to social media, the idea of a video that presents a leader in an unflattering light is simply unfathomable in many parts of the world.
What does this have to do with the doctored Pelosi video?
The Pelosi video encapsulates in a single video the global debate around the growing tendency of governments to silence criticism and legitimate debate.
Facebook recognizes that if it were to immediately remove the doctored Pelosi video, many governments around the world would feel further emboldened to demand the removal of all content painting their leaders in an unflattering light, doctored or not. Even legitimate internationally authenticated video capturing unflattering or unethical actions or even criminal activity would face far greater pressure for immediate removal if Facebook were to move aggressively to remove the Pelosi video.
Instead, Facebook is setting a precedent that falsified content can be shared but its distribution should be limited and it should be accompanied with a warning that the content has been doctored.
Putting this all together, the doctored Pelosi video reminds us that we do not need AI-powered “deep fakes” to see altered viral videos of our political leaders. The different public response between the doctored Trump video from this past January and this week’s Pelosi video reminds us how much has changed over the past few months in how we see doctored videos of politicians. At the same time, blacklists and outright bans on the publication and sharing of doctored videos would embolden repressive regimes to ramp up their efforts to ban any negative or unflattering coverage of their leaders, real or faked, including what would be considered legitimate political satire in the US.
Looking the future, any political leader could claim that any video presenting them in an unflattering light has been doctored and as fact checking organizations come under increasing scrutiny, their influence may wane in the debate over what is “real” and what is “false.”
In the end, Facebook’s choice to limit the distribution of the video and warn users that it has been doctored presents the best tradeoff between limiting the political harm of a doctored video and stopping short of presenting the world’s repressive governments a blueprint for eradicating negative coverage of themselves.