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US goes DIY on disinformation

Michael Knigge Washington
May 31, 2019

A doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was shared widely on social media is a taste of what to expect during the upcoming US presidential campaign: disinformation content that goes viral.

Fake news sign on a smartphone
Image: picture-alliance/L. Huter

The video of Nancy Pelosi that was edited to make it seem as though she was slurring words or drunk and that was distributed all over the Internet last week was not even a particularly sophisticated effort of media manipulation.

"This is content that is available and easily to produce," said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab which focuses on combating disinformation. "It is far away from the kind of deep fake or next generation of what could happen with disinformation."

Despite this low-tech approach that experts say made it comparatively easy to determine that the video was manipulated, it was shared widely on social media before it was amplified by Fox News and President Donald Trump who tweeted it out to his 60 million followers, alleging — falsely — that House Speaker Pelosi stammered her way through a press conference.

While YouTube removed the video in response to protests, Facebook and Twitter did not. 

Attractive falsehoods

The fact that relatively simple to discern fake content still garners millions of users who watch it, share it and perhaps believe it may seem like a contradiction, but it is not, Brookie told DW. "There's a large body of evidence that shows that outright falsehoods always get more audience engagement and traction than anything debunking it. And that is true in this case and in cases to come."

The tendency to be attracted by outright falsehoods coupled with an increasingly partisan political landscape in the US provides a fertile environment for disinformation. Experts define this as the distribution of false information without intent — as opposed to misinformation, which is defined as the distribution of false information with intent.

Read more'Vast' far-right disinformation networks discovered in EU

How to spot fake news

"I was sad to see the doctored Pelosi video, but I do think it is a kind of teachable moment for American voters," said Renee Hobbs, founder and director of the University of Rhode Island's Media Education Lab. She is convinced the US electorate should brace itself for more manipulated content as the 2020 election campaign heats up.  

"We don't need any Russians anymore, we can do it ourselves" she added jokingly, referring to Kremlin-linked efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election through an Internet-based campaign of misinformation and propaganda.

Read more:Is Facebook doing enough to combat fake news?  

Media and politics: Quo vadis?

What's the threshold?

While the US government has stepped up efforts to counter disinformation from Russia and other foreign actors, the broader and more difficult issue of how to deal with the virality of maliciously manipulated content by domestic actors remains unsolved.   

"What is the threshold for speech online?", asked DFR Lab's Brookie before answering his own question by stating there is none. No generally agreed upon threshold about what constitutes protected speech and what does not exists internationally or domestically. Coming up with one, he told DW, is difficult.     

Until an agreed upon and legally enforceable distinction between acceptable speech and unacceptable disinformation evolves, "the tactic of the doctored Nancy Pelosi video is going to continue to develop", predicted Brookie.

Read more'Don't bet against Nancy Pelosi,' former top aide warns Donald Trump

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