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A deceptively edited video of Joe Biden illustrates a big problem in 2020

Biden’s comments in a viral video seemed more likely to be heard at a Trump rally, but the context was stripped out.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on December 30, 2019, in Derry, New Hampshire.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has developed a reputation for making the occasional gaffe, went viral again on Wednesday — but this time, the error was not his.

A deceptively edited video, appearing to show him embracing the white nationalist cultural idea that the US’s identity is the product of its early white European immigrants, was shared repeatedly on social media. The only issue? The 13-second clip, picked from a December 30 speech in New Hampshire, was part of Biden’s critique of that European culture.

“Our culture is not imported from some African nation, or some Asian nation,” Biden says in the clip. “It’s our English jurisprudential culture. Our European culture.” It sounds like a line more likely to be heard at Trump rally, or an alt right protest, but the context of the comments was lost in a creative edit.

In actuality, Biden was talking about American culture allowing sexual violence to continue unchecked. He argued that rape culture has descended from English legal permissiveness toward sexual violence and violence against women before detailing his own role in trying to change that culture.

“We finally got a lot passed through when the secretary of education, who was a great guy that I worked with and others, under Title IX,” Biden said in his speech. “Then along came Betsy DeVos and ended it. Folks, this is about changing the culture. ... It’s not imported from some African nation, or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture. Our European culture.”

The clip was posted by an odd Twitter account that shared a whole thread of clips from Biden’s speech Monday, which was broadcast live on the ABC News Facebook page. The user, which appears to be a troll account, has made pro-Sen. Bernie Sanders tweets in the past but appears to have interacted with alt-right accounts as well.

The out-of-context clip spread quickly across Twitter Wednesday night, with some people calling Biden a white nationalist and a racist. The full context gives a much clearer picture of what he was trying to say — something far from white nationalist talking points.

Deceptive videos such as this are part of a broader problem, and it’s a worrisome sign as the 2020 campaign for president kicks into high gear.

Deceptively edited videos are becoming more commonplace

On its own, the fact that it was so easily believed that Biden would repeat alt-right talking points portends a potentially serious image problem for his campaign. There is plenty for Biden critics to find fault with, without resorting to sharing out-of-context video clips. The portion of the speech from which the clip was pulled is a frequent Biden riff on the stump, and some of his related comments drew heavy criticism toward Biden’s campaign in March last year. He said then he regretted his role in the Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, though he stopped short of apologizing to her.

But the video also speaks to a broader problem: Deceptively edited videos going viral has become increasingly common in politics over the past several years. A clip of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) saying that America “should be more fearful of white men,” and calling for FBI profiling of the demographic went viral in July. Her reference to “white men” was in comparison to the way the government and law enforcement have monitored Muslims in counterterrorism efforts. Nevertheless, it was still shared by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (FL). The video has accumulated about 6 million views to date, and widespread sharing of it coincided with death threats toward Omar.

The Republican National Committee shared a selectively edited clip in March last year that appeared to show Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), then a candidate for president, calling for expanding Social Security to unauthorized immigrants. The inaccurate clip was quickly picked up by Fox News.

And other forms of doctored videos have targeted other political figures — a clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing to show her drunk while giving a speech in late May last year was spread around by President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and conservative media before it was revealed that the video was manually slowed down.

Even Trump himself, who often goes on long unrelated diatribes during his speeches, has been a victim of deceptive video edits, as pointed out by Media Matters editor Parker Molloy.

That’s partly because of social media, which makes it easier to unwittingly spread misinformation, as explained to Vox by political scientist Emily Thorson:

People have always been susceptible to misinformation. I think the real challenge now lies in the immediacy, scope, and ease of dissemination we now see with new technologies like social media.

Trying to figure out in what circumstances people are more likely to accept misinformation leads to some interesting territory. We know that context matters a lot, but also that there are cognitive, linguistic, social, and other factors that come into play. How people process information changes based on all kinds of factors.

If something is repeated over and over again, if it’s couched in a narrative or storyline, if it comes from a familiar source — all of this influences whether we accept or reject information.

We’re more likely to share bits of information that confirm our already preconceived notions about political issues and candidates, and it’s so easy to get clicks and attention with the most outrageous-looking tweets.

But this episode reminds us that as we flip the calendar to a new decade, we could all do with looking deeper and double checking the full context before sharing the most rage-worthy content.

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