Following his lackluster performance in Wednesdays Democratic presidential debate, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg tweeted out a doctored video that made it look like he had a hugely successful moment on the debate stage, even though he didnt.
And while politicians putting out campaign ads that take their opponents words out of context or are selectively edited to misconstrue their opponents positions is a practice basically as old as time itself, some experts are calling the Bloomberg video dangerous and unethical in a digital age rife with disinformation.
The 25-second clip starts with the mayor asking a question he really did pose in the debate: Im the only one here that I think has ever started a business is that fair?
What follows is a series of close-ups on everyone from former Vice President Joe Biden to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) keeping quiet, looking confused and uncomfortable, all backed by background noise of crickets chirping.
Put together, it makes it look like Bloomberg had an epic mic-drop moment in which he thoroughly owned all of his opponents on the debate stage.
But thats not what really happened.
In reality, there was a brief awkward silence after Bloomberg asked the question, but then he proceeded to talk about his vision for mentorship programs for young entrepreneurs.
When he finished, one of his opponents Sanders actually went on the attack to complain about a corrupt political system, bought by billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg that help the richest people pay fewer taxes.
Here, I made the clip of what actually happened when Bloomberg asked who else had started a business. It was not 20 seconds of dumbfounded silence.
Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) February 20, 2020
Of course, every campaign makes videos and ads that make their candidate look good. Stretching the truth is a normal practice in politics, and its no surprise that Bloombergs or anybodys team would put out a slickly edited, somewhat humorous video like that one.
And, yes, its also incumbent on the public to be discerning when a politician says or does anything.
But at a time when foreign governments are actively trying to spread disinformation in US elections and President Donald Trump frequently shares manipulated video clips on Twitter to attack his political opponents, all candidates need to be wary of what gets released in their name.
In this digital age, campaigns need to be more careful than ever before, Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and disinformation expert, told me. There needs to be a higher standard.
Doing this sort of thing could also get candidates in hot water with the social media platform itself.
Starting on March 5, Twitter will begin a new policy of labeling tweets that mislead the public. A spokesperson for the company told Vox that if Bloombergs tweet had come out after the new policy was in place, it likely would have been labeled as containing manipulated media. However, the policy is not retroactive, so Bloombergs video can live forever on the internet without any indication it was doctored.
Bloombergs campaign didnt respond to a request for comment.
The problem with Bloombergs Anyone? tweet
Emerson Brooking, a disinformation expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, explained some of the specific problems with Bloombergs video.
There is no watermark to indicate that it has been edited, nor any disclosure that it was produced by the Bloomberg campaign, he told me.
Even though the video was tweeted out by Bloombergs official Twitter account, its conceivable someone might see it or share it without realizing the doctored clip came from the mayors team. And if a viewer doesnt have that context, they might think what theyre seeing truly happened.
This video is deceptive and misleading, Brooking said.
Otis, who authored a book titled True Or False: A CIA Analysts Guide to Spotting Fake News, said a campaigns intent when releasing content also matters. Was the goal to mislead or hide a connection to any piece of disinformation? Not being up front about an edited video or other changed content runs a big risk since people spread things quickly without verification, she told me.
How people online receive the information matters, too. A glance at replies to the tweet show most people realized it was manipulated. But as of this writing, the video was shared over 4,000 times and viewed about 2 million times, and its unclear how many of those people discerned that the content was fake.
Brooking doesnt believe the Bloomberg campaign aimed to really trick voters. Although it uses common disinformation techniques, I do not think the intention is to deceive, he said. Rather, their intention is to draw a contrast between candidates.
But, he added, Based on the lack of watermark or attribution, its clear the Bloomberg campaign does not care if people are fooled in the process.
Should Bloombergs tweet stay up? It depends on who you ask.
Theres a raging debate over what to do with videos like the Bloomberg campaigns, Irene Pasquetto, a disinformation expert at Harvard University, told me.
One side argues that cheap fakes easily doctored videos should stay online no matter how harmful or misleading they might be.
Take what happened earlier this month: Trump tweeted out a video that had been edited to make it look like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was ripping up the presidents State of the Union speech during touching moments, such as the introduction of a Tuskegee airman. Thats not what transpired: Pelosi did rip up the speech, but only at the end of the full address.
Jonathan Zittrain, a legal expert at Harvard, argues that tweet shouldnt be taken down, even though its misleading, because its protected by free speech.
Its political expression that could be said to be rearranging the video sequence in order to make a point that ripping up the speech at the end was, in effect, ripping up every topic that the speech had covered, he wrote on Medium on February 10.
And to show it in a video conveys a message far more powerful than just saying it something First Amendment values protect and celebrate, at least if people arent mistakenly thinking it is real, Zittrain wrote.
But another side argues the simplicity of manipulating a video in the way Bloomberg did in the midst of a political campaign, no less is problematic. It doesnt take extensive technical skills to edit a video favorably, and that fact alone stops social media giants from pulling easily doctored content down. That arguably makes this kind of disinformation more effective in the long term.
There is no doubt that these videos are manipulated and dangerous, but whether they are dangerous or fake enough to be removed is not clear for now, Pasquetto told me.
Which means its only up to the Bloomberg campaign to decide what to do with the video. Let it stay up and potentially misinform voters, or take it down because it flirts with disinformation? Whatever the decision, it could weigh greatly on the rest of his campaign and the way candidates release content throughout the election.
Shirin Ghaffary contributed reporting to this piece.