Monday, May 27, 2019


Last week, social-media-savvy ratfuckers posted footage of Nancy Pelosi that had been doctored to make it appear as if she was drunk and slurring her words. President Trump and many other prominent Republicans spread the footage or alluded to it -- but the subterfuge was noted and widely reported by the media.

Ahhh, but that discrediting of the footage was all part of the plan, says Charlie Warzel of The New York Times:
Mainstream media outlets, in an effort to debunk the viral clips, linked to the video or reposted portions of it themselves, side-by-side with the un-doctored footage of the House speaker. YouTube removed the video, but only after it amassed thousands of views. Twitter and Facebook did not remove the video (Facebook eventually added “fact check” links to the clips). Journalists and pundits debated the social networks’ decisions to leave the video up, while others lamented the rise of political misinformation, filter bubbles, the future of “deepfake” videos and the internet’s penchant to warp reality.

Whether repeating the lie or attempting to knock it down, the dominant political narrative of the past two days has focused squarely on Speaker Pelosi’s health. And the video views continue to climb....

The mainstream media, designed to document controversy and separate fact from fiction, picked up the story with the best of intentions. Media discussions and stories arguing over whether Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should remove the video were an effort to hold the platforms accountable, while political pieces highlighted the abnormality of a presidential administration and political party spreading such brazen propaganda. The press identified a story, fact-checked and pointed audiences at the truth. Straight out of the journalism school handbooks.

But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t bring a handbook to an information war. The distribution mechanics, rules and terms of service of Facebook’s platform — and the rest of social media — are no match for professional propagandists, trolls, charlatans, political operatives and hostile foreign actors looking to sow division and blur the lines of reality.
Really? I agree that the footage has spread the way it was intended to spread. I agree that millions of people now believe that Nancy Pelosi is a brain-damaged drunk.

But I wonder if the number of people who believe Pelosi is a brain-damaged drunk is any greater than the number of people who, prior to the release of the doctored footage, believed that Pelosi is a psychotic socialist witch. Did the footage persuade anyone who wasn't already persuaded?

Unlike phony stories of Hillary Clinton's extremely bad health, which were spread during the 2016 campaign largely by a supermarket tabloid, this ratfuck was identified and debunked rapidly. The Hillary rumors remained under the radar throughout the fall of 2016, seen by many voters but never identified as a serious attempt at disinformation.

I understand what Warzel is trying to say, but I think he's falling into a common trap for those whose job it is to explain tech to the not particularly tech-aware: He ascribes superpowers to digital bad actors. He has some reason to do that: Left to their own devices, these people can wreak a lot of havoc, manipulating us in ways we don't understand. We certainly learned that in 2016, because most of the truly insidious disiniformation was spread digitally.

But the 2016 ratfucks had a significant impact because their power weren't understood in real time. They generally weren't identified until after the election; the Pelosi ratfuck, by contrast, was caught right away.

Warzel writes:
... the press has few answers for how to cover propaganda in an online ecosystem that is designed to spread hoaxes. The heart of the reporting process breaks down when your adversaries’ only goal is to hijack attention.
What he's saying, in other words, is that there's no such thing as bad publicity for a ratfuck.

But that's not true. This time, the press caught the bastards red-handed, and now it's widely known that the Pelosi footage is fake. The press does know how to deal with this kind of hoax: pounce quickly and debunk it prominently.

We're in trouble when the press fails to do this. But if the press puts in the effort, at least some of the ratfucks can be un-fucked.

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