You have to give Twitter credit – they’re trying to get ahead of the whole “deepfake” controversy by creating an entirely new label called “manipulated media” that it will apply to any video content on its platform that appears to be “synthetic,” “doctored,” or manipulated in any way. Twitter won’t remove the media, but it will plaster the equivalent of a warning label all over it, sort of like YouTube does when it thinks someone is sharing conspiracy videos. This should be a good thing, because it should cut down on the ability of deepfakes to spread on social media. However, it raises a lot of troubling questions about what “manipulated media” really is.
Trump, Biden and the art of political manipulation
The reason why all this matters, of course, is because politics is a sphere that’s ripe for this kind of manipulation and overly aggressive video editing. In fact, the first test case of Twitter’s new “manipulated media” tag (which went into effect in early March) involved Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who appeared to be saying “We can only re-elect Donald Trump” in a viral video clip re-tweeted by President Trump and his social media team. What this edited video clip left out, however, was what Biden said next. In the full speech delivered at his campaign rally, Biden said that “we can only re-elect Donald Trump” if the Democratic party continues its series of negative campaign ads and fails to unite around a single candidate.
Fair enough. But the Trump team didn’t manipulate or doctor the video – they just cut the video short as soon as they got the sound bite they wanted. It’s no different, really, from what late-night comedians do – they’ll take a sound bite of Trump appearing to say something foolish and then riff on it endlessly. Or they’ll take a quick video clip or image and turn it into something embarrassing. (Remember when the New York Daily News took an image of Donald Trump appearing to stare right at the sun during the last solar eclipse for a front-page cover? Or that possibly manipulated video snippet of Melania scowling at the 2017 Trump inauguration, which led to endless speculation about the state of their marriage and the whole #FreeMelania movement?) It literally happens all the time. Anything taken out of context can make you look like a fool.
Editing or manipulation?
The big problem here is that there is actually a very fine line between editing a video and actually manipulating the video. What’s the difference, really, between the sort of sound bite video clip that CNN or Fox News airs on a nightly basis, and the best efforts by an intrepid social media influencer to offer up the best 10-15 seconds of a boring, one-hour speech? You’ve got to cut and clip somewhere.
Moreover, we live in a brave new social media era, when it’s perfectly OK to add augmented reality filters to content, add in new photographic filters, and transform any image into a viral meme. Any content that makes its way onto the Internet is ripe for manipulation of some kind. For more than two decades, we’ve been living a form of “re-mix culture,” in which clever mixes and mashups are a new way to express ideas. Most memes, really, are just a way of appropriating cultural artifacts for desired effect.
A neutral playing field?
Twitter’s crackdown on manipulated media could become the norm rather than the exception (especially if Joe Biden continues to make new gaffes on the campaign trail…), leading other social media companies to follow suit. Initially, Facebook said it would not act on the Trump-Biden video controversy, but recently applied a special tag to the 13-second clip from the Biden campaign rally, warning people that it might be misleading.
The big question, though, is just how neutral and unbiased the big social media platforms will be when it comes to future incidents involving “synthetic” media. You can be assured that any misstep by Trump will be leveraged for maximum political effect. Will the censors at Twitter be willing to apply the same kind of standard for content emanating from the Biden camp, or will they act in a way that will show clear bias for one political side to win?