Last week, an altered video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral on Facebook, garnering thousands of shares and millions of views. The video, which slowed a speech Pelosi gave down to 75 percent speed, had the effect of making the congresswoman appear drunk. Seizing an opportunity, Fox Business cut together a separate video of Pelosi stammering as she gave a public statement, which President Trump quickly tweeted out to his followers.
The videos pose a bit of a quandary for Facebook and Twitter, because they exist in a gray area between fact and fiction. The “drunk” video is edited and clearly people believe it is real, though that editing may be construed as a form of commentary rather than objective reportage. The stammering compilation is composed of clips of Pelosi, edited together not unlike a gaffe montage one might see on the Daily Show. Both of the videos are still available on their respective platforms, though Facebook has limited the “drunk” video’s reach (i.e., how often it appears in a user’s algorithmically generated News Feed). The clips remain because these platforms’ views on moderation usually align closely with the First Amendment: Anything that is not illegal and does not pose immediate harm is usually allowed to remain. The veracity of any single piece of content is beside the point.
Yesterday, Pelosi offered the following comment to KQED:
“We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians. I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false. I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I can take it … But [Facebook is] lying to the public.”
Pelosi added, “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”
For Pelosi to reduce this issue to a problem of Russian interference is, at best, a stretch. It also shows that even at our highest levels of government, the methods of social-media meddling are still not well understood and further cloud the issue.
Much of the controversial Russian social-media activity was based not on inventing facts out of thin air (“Nancy Pelosi is an alcoholic”) but on stoking tensions based on actual issues (“The Democrats want to take your guns”). It is easy to make the case that the “drunk” video was deliberately misleading — Pelosi was not, after all, drunk. But the idea that it somehow represents an egregious instance of foreign meddling ignores the fact that many similar types of posts and manipulations are homegrown American products, as is most creatively-edited political propaganda, whether it’s created for satirical or nefarious purposes. Social-media manipulation is often based on toeing the line between exaggeration and falsification.
Consider the compilation of Pelosi’s stammers that President Trump posted on Twitter, piggybacking off the attention of the “drunk” video. It wasn’t false, because Pelosi did actually stammer (though the implication is obvious). More to the point, consider where that video came from. It wasn’t sourced from an anonymous social-media account; it came from the professional-grade editing bays of News Corp. Yet Pelosi has no substantial comment on this aspect (it’s possible she gave a quote about it to KQED that didn’t make the write-up).
It is frustrating to see Pelosi, one of the most prominent political leaders in the United States, boil down an obviously domestic attempt at smearing her to one of foreign interference. To claim “it’s Russia!” ignores the problem in one’s own backyard. It’s an indication that she might not understand the root of the problem, which is that freedom of speech on private platforms is likely irreconcilable with the notion of truth, given the sheer scale and speed at which these platforms operate.
Correction: The clip posted by President Trump came from the Fox Business channel, not Fox News, as was initially stated.