Facebook Fact-Checker Caught Selectively Censoring Political Video

A video highlighting a few awkward clips from a Joe Biden speech is “Partly False Information” that deserves to be censored, according to Facebook’s fact-checking partner, FactCheck.org.

In August, FactCheck.org labeled a Joe Biden video by Maggie VandenBerghe (Fog City Midge) “Partly False” because it was “Deceptively Edited to Make Him Appear ‘Lost’”. However, the video was not deceptively edited and nothing presented in the video is false. Nevertheless, the video remains falsely labeled “false”, and therefore suppressed, on Facebook to this day.

Fog City Midge’s video that was suppressed on Facebook after being labeled “Partly False Information”

The reason Joe Biden appears lost in the video is because he literally is lost. Biden began his speech by greeting the wrong community center. (He is speaking at the William Hicks Anderson Center, not Kingswood). Afterward, Biden tried to dismiss the embarrassing screw up as a joke: “Actually, that’s the one down I used to work. That’s a joke…”. Then Biden himself confirms he was lost: “Didn’t know where we were. Anyway…”.

C-SPAN offers a second angle showing Biden’s small crowd react to Biden’s total lack of awareness.

What makes the senior moment more concerning is the fact that the community center is named after Biden’s own friend, William Hicks Anderson. Throughout the talk, Biden repeatedly referred to Hicks as “a good friend”. “He was a good friend…my buddy…Hicks and I went way way back…my buddy Hicks.”

Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker

Late in the FactCheck article’s sixth paragraph, fact-checker Saranac Hale Spencer, finally identifies a specific edit for which she labeled the video “false”. (Emphasis mine)

The video clip then shows Biden saying: “It’s great to be here and back in a place where… .” But the clip doesn’t include the rest of the sentence…

However, Joe Biden never finished the sentence himself. Spencer falsely labeled the edit “deceptive” for cutting out something that never even existed. Rather than complete the sentence, Biden abruptly started an entirely new scrambled sentence: “I want to thank Willi — Wayne Jefferson for, uh, having us here”.

Biden’s full appearance at Hicks Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, DE

“It’s uh it’s — it’s great to be here and, uh, back, uh, in a place where, uh you know, uh — I want to thank Willi — Wayne Jefferson for, uh, having us here at the Hicks Anderson Center. Hick — oh [unintelligible] from Delaware, everybody knew who Hicks was.”

After accusing the video of “deceptively” editing out the end of a sentence that was never completed in the first place, Spencer reprimands the video for, “instead going on to splice together other parts of Biden’s remarks where he says ‘um’ or ‘uh’.”

…the clip doesn’t include the rest of the sentence, instead going on to splice together other parts of Biden’s remarks where he says “um” or “uh.”…

It’s true that the video did edit out material to highlight Biden’s delays. But the mere fact that the video spliced together a short montage of Biden’s “uh’s” is hardly justification for labeling the video false. For example, according to her own standard, one could argue that Spencer herself used “deceptive editing” when quoting Biden in her article. After all, she edited out all of Biden’s many awkward “uh’s”, making Biden appear far more clear and concise than he actually was. Does this mean FactCheck.org should be labeled “Partly False Information” and suppressed on Facebook too?

Spencer goes on to suggest she suppressed the video because VandenBerghe didn’t include a written notification that her video was edited.

[VandenBerghe] didn’t explain in the caption accompanying the clip on either Facebook or Instagram that the video had been edited.

But why should she when all the edits are visible for everyone to view in plain site? Unlike most political campaign videos (which aren’t required to include such a notification), she used no fancy graphics or advanced editing techniques to hide her cuts from the audience. Instead, she used basic edits known as “jump cuts”, abruptly communicating the passing of time.

Jump Cuts

How can editing the passage of time be “deceptive” when the audience is made aware of each cut with such blatantly obvious visual cues?

Allegedly “Partly False Information” jump cut edits by Fog City Midge

To her credit, Spencer did go on to acknowledge that Biden’s statement in the final clip of the video lacks evidence. Biden said “over 340 million people have watched what we’ve done like this on television”.

We asked Biden’s campaign what that figure was based on, but we didn’t get a response. Videos on the campaign’s YouTube channel routinely get thousands or tens of thousands of views, and the campaign also posts videos on other social media platforms. But it’s unclear how Biden got the tally of 340 million.

Interestingly enough, despite the lack of evidence supporting Biden’s claim, FactCheck.org issued no “Partly False Information” label for the original video of Biden, and wrote no fact-check article debunking Biden’s unsubstantiated claim.

A Dangerous Standard

VandenBerghe’s video didn’t alter the meaning of any words or statements and the editing is hardly deceptive considering it’s visible for all to see. So then what’s the logic for calling it false and suppressing it?

It seems Spencer labelled the video “Partly False” simply because it’s edited material. However, if editing out material to focus on smaller parts (even small pauses) makes a video “Partly False”, all videos on Facebook deserve that label as well. After all, literally every video clip and sound bite of politicians on Facebook and elsewhere is taken from a larger context.

Even if a video does not include cuts made in a digital video editor, every video presents an edited reality with at least 2 cuts: a start and end point. For example, PBS’s coverage of Biden’s otherwise full remarks omitted Biden’s embarrassing memory lapse at the beginning. Print journalism is inherently edited too. For instance, Spencer’s former publisher, Delaware Online, decided to omit Biden’s awkward introduction from their coverage as well.

The nature of media to include some quotes while omitting others is problematic but utterly normal. It’s not possible to have all-encompassing media. Only edited reality. That’s why the logic behind Spencer’s decision to suppress material for the act of basic editing is especially disturbing. It could be used to selectively suppress any video clip, sound bite, or news article ever published.

Selectively labelling a political video “false” for allegedly making a candidate “appear lost” should not be a fact-checking standard. All across the media landscape, content is edited to make candidates “appear” as either the devil incarnate or a divine savior. What videos should be fact-checked on is specific content. For example, have any quotes or images been fabricated or misrepresented? In this case, the correct answer is simply, “No.”

According to NPR, Spencer was one of FactCheck’s first hires after beginning its partnership with Facebook in 2016. She got her start working at a local news outlet managed by her mother in Delaware — Biden’s home state. Before joining FactCheck, she reported for Delaware Online which has a “left-center bias”, according to MediaBiasFactCheck.com. Her articles there include a couple of puff and fluff pieces about Joe Biden and his potential Presidential run in 2015.

Whether due to personal bias or professional laziness, FactCheck.org — at least in this instance — assisted the Biden campaign’s efforts to label critics of Joe Biden as promoters of false information. But the only deceptive providers of false information in this story was Facebook and its fact-checker at FactCheck.org.

Matt Orfalea is a professional television producer and video editor. Former creative editor for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

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