New York CNN Business  — 

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

A big, brazen lie

I’m really an optimistic person at heart. But right now I find myself agreeing with Politico’s Michael Kruse, who tweeted on Thursday, “We’re not prepared for how bad stuff’s gonna get.”

Truly, we are not prepared.

Kruse was linking to Drew Harwell’s WaPo story about a pathetic, but persuasive, strain of political disinformation about Nancy Pelosi. Distorted videos of the House Speaker, “altered to make her sound as if she’s drunkenly slurring her words, are spreading rapidly across social media,” Harwell wrote.

What’s going on here is pretty obvious. Pelosi is questioning President Trump’s competency – saying she’s concerned about the president’s well-being, suggesting an “intervention” is needed – so Trump’s allies are saying the exact same things about her. “She’s a mess. She’s lost it,” Trump said Thursday.

That’s what these manipulated videos are all about. There are multiple types – all meant to reinforce the message that Pelosi, not Trump, is the incompetent one. The primary video that went viral this week “has been slowed down, which makes her words seem slurred,” Donie O’Sullivan explained here…

These are dumbfakes, not “deepfakes”

“By my calculation, the altered video has been slowed by almost 75% introducing a significant distortion in her speech,” Hany Farid, a professor at UC Berkeley and expert in digital forensics and image analysis, told O’Sullivan. But it wasn’t technically a “deepfake” because it was so crude. “It is striking that such a simple manipulation can be so effective and believable, to some,” Farid said. “While I think that deep-fake technology poses a real threat, this type of low-tech fake shows that there is a larger threat of misinformation campaigns – too many of us are willing to believe the worst in people that we disagree with.”

Trump promoted this smear…

The theory advanced by the viral video is “Pelosi is unwell.” Her camp called it “sexist trash.” Then came this variation televised by Fox Business on Thursday evening – a mash-up of multiple awkward moments from Pelosi’s presser, seemingly inspired by the earlier viral video. Her words weren’t slowed down, but were spliced together to suggest something was wrong. Fox aired it with the caption “Pelosi urges Trump intervention; stammers through news conference.” Lou Dobbs’ guest host Gregg Jarrett then asked “What’s going on?” Message received… Trump tweeted out the clip with the title “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.”

So this idea received the presidential stamp of approval… giving his fans an alternative narrative to support… while the big story right now is about Pelosi turning the screws on Trump and Trump denying her claim that he had a “temper tantrum…”

Top tweets

– WaPo’s Glenn Kessler: “It is still shocking a president would share an obviously manipulated video. Yet more evidence she really got under his skin.”

– The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson: “I think we may overrate the longterm danger of deep fakes and underrate the ongoing threat of low-tech video edits to viral videos. The former will always be simple fraud, while the latter offers its creators and amplifiers a claim to plausibility.”

– CNN’s Amanda Carpenter: “Pelosi is wrong. There was not ‘a cover up.’ There were MANY cover ups. Coverups of Russian talks. Coverups of seedy, extramarital affairs. Cover ups of Trump’s accounting. And, cover ups to hide Trump’s attempts to kill queries about any of it.”

Three months, 2.2 billion fake accounts

This is an incredible, shocking reminder about the scale of the misinformation problem: “Facebook took down 2.2 billion fake accounts between January and March, a record high for the company,” Kaya Yurieff reported Thursday. “For comparison, Facebook disabled 1.2 billion fake accounts in the previous quarter and 694 million between October and December 2017.”

The company says “we’ve seen a steep increase in the creation of abusive, fake accounts on Facebook in the last six months. We catch most of these accounts within minutes of registration. However, automated attacks have resulted in more of these accounts making it past our initial detection, which increased prevalence.” Lots more info here…


– Headline of the day? Yahoo’s Dylan Stableford writing about Rex Tillerson: “Trump declares man he appointed secretary of state ‘totally ill prepared and ill equipped’ for the job” (Yahoo)

– Another standout headline: “Trump gets White House witnesses to attest to his ‘very calm’ demeanor” (WSJ)

– Thursday evening’s unsurprising breaking news: “Trump orders intel agencies to assist Barr with review of Russia probe…” (CNN)

What does Julian Assange’s new indictment mean for journalists?

“A new batch of charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has alarmed free speech advocates who say it threatens to criminalize legitimate journalistic practices,” Jackie Wattles wrote for CNN Business on Thursday.

The 17 additional charges include “unlawfully obtaining” and disclosing classified information in violation of the federal Espionage Act. “Julian Assange is no journalist,” Assistant A.G. John Demers said. US Attorney Zach Terwilliger said Assange is not being charged “simply because he’s a publisher.” They’re trying to say that this is not about the rights of journalists. But First Amendment boosters are not buying it. As professor Jane Kirtley told Wattles: “I don’t like government deciding who journalists are or what journalism is.”

“This is an extraordinary escalation…”

Here’s what press freedom groups and other stakeholders had to say about the latest charges:

– Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project: “For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for U.S. journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations.”

– CPJ exec director Joel Simon: “Press freedom in the United States and around the world is imperiled by this prosecution.”

– Bruce Brown, exec director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: “Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest,irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist.”

– Seymour Hersh to the NYT: “Today Assange. Tomorrow, perhaps, The New York Times and other media that published so much of the important news and information Assange provided.”

– Eugene Volokh’s latest: “Under the government’s theory in some of the charges, any reporter who knowingly prints certain kinds of government secrets could equally be prosecuted.”


– CJR has a new report looking back to the DOJ’s “sweeping subpoenas” for AP phone records in 2013, finding that their “actions against the AP were broader than previously known, and that the DOJ considered subpoenaing the phone records of other news organizations…” (CJR)

– “Twitter has permanently banned prominent anti-Trump brothers Brian and Ed Krassenstein, alleging that two of the biggest stars of #Resistance Twitter had broken the site’s rules about operating fake accounts and purchasing fake interactions with their accounts…” (Beast)

Read more of Thursday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…

– Howard Stern sat down with Anderson Cooper on Thursday… He said he had “inside info” that Trump started running for president as a “publicity stunt…” The full interview will air Friday night on CNN… (CNN)

– Stern’s book debuted at No. 1 on the NYT best seller list this week… (NYT)