For close to four hours this past weekend, a cropped video that appeared to show Joe Biden endorsing Donald Trump gained steam on Twitter before the Biden campaign publicly pushed back. Twitter eventually deemed it misleading, but by the time the post was labeled as such, it had already been viewed millions of times.
Though the Biden campaign defended its handling of the video, the episode has nevertheless sparked fears in Democratic circles and beyond about its ability to navigate the fast moving world of online politics, where disinformation can shape conversations before the true version is known.
“They’ve got to do something. You can’t surrender the ground,” said Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “We already know what the conspiracy is going to be. There’s going to be tons of disinformation out there. People tend to believe that which they see first and that which they see the most. If you can’t stop them from seeing it, you’ve got to be out there.”
The video in question was taken from a rally Biden held in Kansas City, Missouri on Saturday. Posted at 8:18 p.m by Dan Scavino, President Trump’s social media adviser, it showed Biden appearing to stumble over his words before settling on: “we can only re-elect Donald Trump.” In reality, Biden said nothing of the sort. A fuller video showed him saying “we can only re-elect Donald Trump if in fact we get engaged in this circular firing squad here. It’s gotta be a positive campaign, so join us.”
But for those looking on Twitter, the fuller video was not easy to find. Instead, the cropped version was amplified by Biden’s opponents. Trump retweeted it to his 73.5 million followers (“I agree with Joe!”) and other Trump-supportive conservatives, as well as some liberal-minded Biden opponents, followed suit. It would take the Biden campaign until just after midnight the next day to push back on the misleading version that Scavino had put out. Not only that, the campaign farmed out some of the fact-checking responsibilities to others. It was the Democratic National Committee that flagged the video to Twitter, the party committee told The Daily Beast, as part of their program to clamp down on the spread of disinformation in 2020.
“This is an example of our ongoing disinformation work, and the same thing that we do for every campaign,” a DNC official said, adding that they “flag activity to each of the campaigns, and have set them up with tools to receive regular activity alerts themselves.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast about their disinformation strategy, a Biden campaign adviser said that their more publicly hands-off approach was by design. The campaign, the adviser said, is partially relying on—and working with—reporters to police content that they flag for being inaccurate or misleading, as part of an “earned media” approach towards correcting disinformation.
That strategy, according to the campaign, helped lead to Twitter, and eventually Facebook, labeling the video as either “manipulated media” or “partly false information” in what the campaign trumpeted as a first.
“We and others took action on a fact-checking front in the press and in terms of directly appealing to Twitter,” the Biden campaign adviser said. “We lifted content online that showed it was false, from the media and generated by ourselves, in order to help achieve a drumbeat.”
Indeed, one of the earliest forms of pushback to the video came from Biden’s response director, Andrew Bates, who tweeted “why am I not surprised?” at 12:05 a.m. on March 8 in response to a comment from freelance writer Bill Scher about the clip being “disinfo from the Trump campaign.”
But Watts said their approach is unlikely to be sufficient come November. “I understand the credible messenger thing, but I don’t know if it works in this case,” he said. “The truth is a credible message. I feel like you’ve got to knock a lot of those things down. I think it’s a capability they need to have other than just hoping journalists catch it.”
And other Democratic operatives who worked on opposing campaigns in the presidential primary said they were disheartened by how slow Biden’s operation moved to clear away any ambiguity that the cropped video may have raised.
“You should respond quickly,” said a senior communications official on a former campaign. “It isn’t rocket science!”
Another former senior communications aide added that if they faced a similar type of attack from the Trump campaign, they would have “responded to that within 15 minutes.”
Problems like these are not a new phenomenon when it comes to campaigns. Rumor, innuendo, and smear are as old as politics itself and have proven effective at swaying elections. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) had his war credentials questioned so effectively that an entire genre was named after the character assassination. Every Democratic candidate since has pledged not to be “swift-boated.” And each has set up war rooms and websites meant to push back against such attacks in real time. What has posed problems, in recent cycles, is not just the speed with which disinformation has traveled but the ability for people to spread it without ever revealing who they are.
“I am less worried about things they are tweeting out because everyone can go and dunk on them,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior campaign adviser who ran Hillary Clinton’s rapid response effort four years ago. “It’s stuff that’s going to be pushed out with no fingerprints that’s more concerning. That’s the stuff that has real consequences.”
Biden’s team has certainly had time to prepare. During the height of the Senate impeachment trial, when the former vice president’s son Hunter was being targeted by Trump on a daily basis, they did not set up a war room to counter the smears. Instead, as The Daily Beast previously reported, they relied on existing infrastructure that they had used throughout the campaign to push back. The attention dipped after then, with Biden fading in the polls. But his campaign resurrection has brought with it both a heightened amount of scrutiny and a new barrage of interest from Trump and his allies. And it’s raised questions about whether Biden, his team, and the Democratic Party writ large need to rethink their approach.
“There’s a larger question about whether we are prepared to deal with the onslaught of disinformation and misinformation,” said Petkanas. “The answer to that is unequivocally no, we are not.”
Academics say there’s little clarity for campaigns on best practices to deal with these efforts.
David Rand, an expert on misinformation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there’s not a clear answer on when rebuttal is effective versus when it’s amplifying.
“It doesn’t seem crazy to me to say, wait till it starts taking off because a correction is unlikely to really like nip in the bud,” Rand said. “In that a lot of people that are sharing it are sharing it because they think it’s funny or because they don’t like Biden or whatever, and not because they necessarily think it’s true. In that, I’m sure that there’s a lot of people, certainly people that are either pro-Trump or pro-Bernie that would strategically share it, even after knowing that it wasn’t true.”
Saturday’s situation was more of the low stakes variety, said Leticia Bode, a professor at Georgetown University focusing on misinformation, and there is a danger for campaigns to get bogged down in dealing with it.
“I think it really depends on the piece of misinformation,” Bode said. “…I don’t think that this is going to change the election, right? I don’t think anyone is not voting for Biden because of this clip. I don’t think anybody is voting for Trump because of this clip. So because it is so low stakes, I think that the campaign doesn’t want to get bogged down in continuing this news cycle.”
Still, the efforts have been ongoing and are likely to ramp up as the general election nears. When Biden launched his presidential bid nearly a year ago, the president indicated “it will be nasty,” adding, “I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign.”
Contemplating what’s at stake for Democrats, Biden campaign’s approach to Saturday was “poor form,” said Phil Cowdell, president of the consulting division at The Soufan Group who specializes in the weaponization of information.
“In my belief you have to take control of your own destiny and you have to have your own scenarios and defense planned,” he said. “…You can’t rely on a third party to take care of business.”
“If they’re not ready now and they can’t deal with something as sort of simple as a Scavino tweeting something with a selective edit,” Cowdell added. “I think they’re going to be very vulnerable to the escalation level of attacks that we’re anticipating.”