The presidential election is just 56 days away, and as Donald Trump struggles to gain ground in key states, he is increasingly relying on deceptively altered media to bend reality in his favour.
In the past 10 days, the president’s team has deployed misleading imagery to attack his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, at least three times. White House deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino tweeted a fake video that appeared to show Biden sleeping through a TV interview. The “Trump War Room” Twitter account shared an out-of-context clip of Biden saying, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” And on Facebook, Trump has run dozens of ads featuring images of Biden that were manipulated to make the former vice president appear older.
And those are just the latest examples. Trump’s political apparatus has shared a deluge of misinformation with tens of millions of people through social media over the years — including a deceptively spliced video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that appears to show her disrespecting a Tuskegee airman, a fake CNN segment about a “racist baby,” a misleadingly truncated video of Biden in which he appears to endorse Trump, an altered video of Pelosi in which she seems intoxicated, and more.
This kind of visual election misinformation is not a new phenomenon — it’s been around for years, including an infamously forged photo of then-presidential candidate John Kerry, ostensibly with Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally, that made headlines in 2004. But Trump’s team has repeatedly engaged in this practice directly, elevating the tactic to an unprecedented level while defending its hoaxes as mere satire. The campaign is testing the boundaries of social media sites that let false information go viral — and they haven’t found much resistance.
As Election Day looms, the stakes are critically high. Russia’s fake-news warfare demonstrated in 2016 just how vulnerable America’s democracy is to online misinformation. And this time around, experts are also fretting about what might happen if an election hoax blows up on social media on the eve of the vote, leaving no time for it to be debunked.
Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) are scrambling under mounting public pressure to stifle the spread of political misinformation engulfing their platforms. Each site has policies in place to generally add labels to false and misleading content identifying it as such rather than simply removing it, and Trump’s campaign has eagerly exploited this leniency.
Whenever its posts are labelled as manipulated media or misinformation, the campaign sees an opportunity to rally its base against tech titans’ supposed political bias.
“Trump officials are obviously playing a game here,” said digital forensics expert Hany Farid, a professor in the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley. “And of course, when something gets censored, they go crazy saying ‘This is anti-conservative,’ which, by the way, is working.”
Sensitive to such claims of bias, Facebook has relaxed its enforcement rules for conservative personalities and news outlets, according to leaked Facebook documents obtained by NBC News. The social media giant also refuses to fact-check political ads, which allows politicians to amplify their lies and to micro-target them to specific audiences without consequence.
Last month, Trump ran an ad featuring edited and out-of-context images of Biden that appear to show him sitting alone in a basement along with the text, “Deep in the heart of Delaware, Joe Biden sits in his basement. Alone. Hiding. Diminished. Refusing to answer questions about the crazy far-left ideas he’s adopted.” In fact, Biden was sitting in a crowded room of people; the images in Trump’s ad were cropped to exclude them.
To Farid, Trump’s aggressive use of deceptive online imagery is a form of “asymmetric warfare.”
Biden vowed in 2019 that he would not “fabricate, use or spread data or materials that were falsified,” or spread “doctored audios/videos or images that impersonate other candidates, including deep fake videos,” and to date, he appears to have kept that promise. His campaign has pointed to Trump’s reliance on such tactics as evidence that it “cannot and will not compete on facts.”
Trump isn’t the only presidential candidate to pollute the information system with manipulated media before trying to pass it off as satire — although the scale at which he does this is unmatched. After a dismal performance in February’s Democratic debate, New York City’s billionaire former mayor, Mike Bloomberg, shared a video to social media that was deceptively spliced together to make it seem as if his opponents were left stunned and in silence after he asked them all a question.
The video included chirping cricket noises, which were clearly fake, but as The Guardian’s Julia Wong pointed out, “it’s hard for the average viewer who hasn’t seen the debate to discern which parts of the video are real and which are fake, making it a potent and misleading piece of propaganda.” Still, Bloomberg’s campaign insisted the video was “tongue in cheek.”
The Trump campaign often defends its use of false or deceptive media as jokes, parodies and satire: “To all the triggered journalists who can’t take a joke about their candidate, it’s not our fault Joe Biden was dumb enough to say this on camera,” @TrumpWarRoom tweeted after facing backlash in response to its latest truncated clip of Biden. (In the full video, Biden says, “Trump and Pence are running on this, and I find it fascinating: Quote, ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.’ And what’s their proof? The violence we’re seeing in Donald Trump’s America.”)
Likewise, the video that appeared to show Biden asleep on TV was “quite obviously a parody,” Trump’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, told The Washington Post, echoing the campaign’s defense of many of its other similarly deceptive videos.
The line between political humour and misinformation is nuanced, said Farid, but a reasonable person might not recognise the campaign’s deceptive imagery as fakery “because it’s not being sold as satire.”
“Visual imagery is extremely powerful media, and when it conforms to our world view, it’s even more powerful,” he said. “The campaign is trying to hide behind satire. But its line of ‘Don’t take us seriously’ is hard to take seriously.”