On the first day of this year — a critical election year — a video started making the rounds on Twitter. This video showed the candidate, Joe Biden, stating what appeared to be racist, white supremacist remarks.
What was our first response? Wait. Really?
Yes, really. The alarming and disturbing video was, not surprisingly making the rounds quickly on Twitter. An up and coming House candidate* with close to 36k followers retweeted the video and caught the attention of her many followers. She is a charismatic candidate and people pay attention when she tweets.
In the video clip we see and hear Biden saying “Our culture. Our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation.” As of this writing, it has 1.6 million views.
“Reminder: Video editing still beats deep fakes for spreading disinformation“, a Quartz article by Hanna Kozlowska, captures what happened today and provides important details about the video and how it was quickly debunked by a CNN reporter. Read that article for a clear retelling.
The purpose of my writing is not to retell that story, but to think about how we might stop this from happening the next time. We all need to get into the habit of pausing, especially when we hear something seemingly outrageous, which this was.
The first question to ask is: What is the source of what I’m looking at? In this case, the origin of the video was easy to trace back to an account named @mooncult.
Dating back to 2010, @mooncult now has an impressive 12.4k followers. However the bio is innocuous, not an individual but a “weird twitter posting collective.”
A scroll through @mooncult’s posts shows an endless stream of Joe Biden videos. I got to about twenty and I stopped scrolling. With BotSentinel installed, I quickly check whether this account is automated, a bot. @mooncult posts a lot, but is not automated. This is an account operated by a person or people.
Interspersed among today’s many Biden videos are a few posts featuring Bernie Sanders. @mooncult has an obvious lean toward Bernie. Whomever your choice of candidate, there is a clear edge to these posts.
How could we stop this from happening the next time?
Inspecting @mooncult took less than five minutes.
Here are three lessons learned to help prevent the spread of disinformation:
- If something looks outrageous, take a second look before doing anything. Take a moment to investigate.
- If an account seems suspicious, or even a bit off, it probably is. Trust your gut when inspecting.
- If an account posts with a clear leaning, and all content needs to be viewed through that lens. If there is an edge or particular attitude, pay attention to that too.
Treat twitter accounts like strangers you don’t know. Would you trust a stranger who walked into your house ranting? You probably wouldn’t open your door and let that stranger in, right?
Treat Twitter the same way.
A postscript about video:
Video edits can indeed be as deceptive as deep fake videos. Many months ago, a very trustworthy source whom I follow, @JustinHendrix posted about this very topic. He provided this example of a video that changes its entire meaning through an edit. Watch through to where the 4-year-old completes his statement. This disturbing edit was made by a major news company.
Remember this edit when you watch any video snippet, especially on social media.
*I did not include the candidate’s tweet as I have no intention of maligning that candidate. We all make mistakes and she took down her tweet upon learning that it was false.