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Last week, a series of misleading, altered videos claiming to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her speech spread across social media channels. One video, which was selectively edited to highlight stumbles in Pelosi’s speech, was tweeted by United States President Donald Trump along with commentary from the Fox Business Network questioning Pelosi’s health. Other videos questioned the speaker’s sobriety.
The videos are what researchers call shallowfakes or cheapfakes — manipulated content that’s not especially high tech but can still be damaging. Videos mocking and degrading Pelosi had been circulating online long before they reached the president, but last week was when they entered the mainstream by way of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. And even if the videos are removed, debunked, or flagged with fact-checks for viewers, bad faith claims about Pelosi’s health are likely to stick, according to Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.
“This is her Benghazi,” Donovan said. “It’s going to keep coming up, it’s going to show up in her replies, there are going to be more videos bringing attention to this issue.”
“This is indicative of a future of political communication world where you have a lot of crowd-created content with little accountability. Influencers are going to be able to pick and choose what they share.”
Donovan said the Pelosi videos may be wrapped into existing online conspiracy theories.
“There’s going to be people who want to believe bad things about Pelosi … and this will be persuasive content for them,” she said.
The spread of the videos and the platform companies’ response is ultimately indicative of how the 2020 race will be run, according to Donovan. She expects to see a flood of racist and sexist tropes spread through memes, cheapfakes, and other approaches.
“I do think that women are going to be slandered in ways that just don’t work for men, so this dirty trick is going to work, unfortunately.”
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