A viral clip showing a confrontation between CNN reporter Jim Acosta and a White House aide at a Wednesday press conference with President Trump has provided us with a handy example of the coming video manipulation dystopia.
The video, tweeted by Paul Joseph Watson, an editor of the conspiracy site Infowars, purports to show that Acosta touched the aide as she tried to take a microphone away from Acosta.
The video clip was picked up and tweeted by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as proof that Acosta "put his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job." But observers online quickly pointed out that the clip may have been doctored and that Watson might have changed the speed of Acosta's arm to "amp up the conflict."
There's no evidence that the video was deliberately sped up — but the change in format, from a high-quality video to a low-quality GIF, turns the question of whether it was "doctored" into a semantic debate.
This video analysis by BuzzFeed News demonstrates what the GIF conversion process does to video. While it's not technically "sped up" by intent, it effectively is in practice. The video-to-GIF conversion removes frames from the source material by reducing the frame rate. The GIF-making tool GIF Brewery, for example, typically reduces source video to 10 frames per second. Raw, televised video typically has a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second.
When frames drop out, the video appears jumpier. Acosta's arm seems to move faster. Everything accelerates.
And then here come the tweets.
Some video-savvy observers suggested that the clips are altered — specifically, that the downward motion of Acosta's arm had been sped up. The debunks went viral.
CNN executives decried the video as "actual fake news," and expressed outrage at a White House official sharing a clip originally tweeted by an Infowars editor.
Watson, however, categorically denies doctoring the video. He told BuzzFeed News that the video was "not edited - it's just zoomed in." He also explained that he took the original footage directly from a GIF posted to the Twitter account of the website the Daily Wire.
"Fact is, Daily Wire put up a gif, I download a gif, zoomed in saved it again as an mt2 file - then converted it to an mp4," Watson said over direct message. "Digitally it's gonna look a tiny bit different after processing and zooming in, but I did not in any way deliberately 'speed up' or 'distort' the video. That's just horse shit."
Watson, and Infowars, it should be clear, have been reckless before. Just today, Watson deleted a tweet alleging that the man who perpetrated this morning's mass shooting in California was "Middle Eastern" (reports suggest he was white).
So, who's telling the truth?
On Twitter, Luke Bailey put the two videos side by side. The videos look mostly the same, though it's unclear if there is some subtle change to the speed. Bailey noted that differences in the video could be due to "working across framerates and compressions."
Watson's defense is an issue of semantics — that he altered the video but did not "doctor" it to show something that wasn't there. Unfortunately, establishing just how the video was changed is complicated. The original video file was created by Watson from a GIF file that the Daily Wire tweeted. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the image was distorted by that process. More importantly, as previously noted, the process of converting videos to GIFs often results in frame loss from the original video file. (In the case of the Daily Wire GIF, that means there are likely frames missing from the original CSPAN video it was made from.)
“You don't need to create the fake video for this tech to have a serious impact. You just point to the fact that the tech exists and you can impugn the integrity of the stuff that’s real.”
It's all confusing. There's even an example in which all parties are mostly correct. Watson's clip is different than the CSPAN clip because it was taken from a GIF and thus missing frames, which could cause Acosta's movement to appear faster than it actually was. In that case, one can argue that the video was altered. If that's the case, there's also an argument that Watson is telling the truth — he didn't personally speed up the video; he just used a clip that was missing frames.
To sum it up: A historically unreliable narrator who works for a conspiracy website tweets a video in order to show alleged bad behavior on the part of a journalist. The clip goes viral. The White House picks up and disseminates that video and uses it as proof to ban the journalist from reporting at the White House. Outraged journalists decry the White House's use of a video taken from a historically unreliable narrator. Then, users attempt to debunk the video as "actual fake news." Others, unclear if the video is fake, urge caution, suggesting the media may be jumping the gun. An argument breaks out over the intricate technical details of doctoring a clip.
The entire ordeal is a near-perfect example of a scenario disinformation experts have predicted and warned of, where the very threat of video manipulation can lead to a blurring of reality. "These technological underpinnings [of AI, Photoshop, and editing programs lead] to the increasing erosion of trust,” computational propaganda researcher Renee DiResta told BuzzFeed News in early 2018. “It makes it possible to cast aspersions on whether videos — or advocacy for that matter — are real.”
This isn't the first example of this phenomenon, but it might be the trickiest. In 2017, Donald Trump cited video editing technology to belatedly cast doubt on the Access Hollywood tape (that he originally apologized for). "You don't need to create the fake video for this tech to have a serious impact," DiResta said of the phenomenon. "You just point to the fact that the tech exists and you can impugn the integrity of the stuff that’s real.”
Which is where we stand almost 24 hours after the initial press conference depicted in the video. For some on the far-right, the clip is an example of media malfeasance and knee-jerk reactions. For others on the left and in the press, it's an example of a shameless administration working to establish an alternate reality. There's no agreement and plenty of confusion. Perhaps, some argue, this is all just a distraction from the real concern, which is the Trump White House's flagrant destruction of crucial norms. The truth is muddied and the clip and its attendant controversy become the latest chapter in the "choose your own reality" crisis story. Welcome to the dystopia.
If you want to read more about disinformation and the culture wars, subscribe to Infowarzel, a BuzzFeed News newsletter by the author of this piece, Charlie Warzel.