The White House’s Video of Jim Acosta Shows How Crude Political Manipulation Can Be

On Wednesday, the White House revoked the press pass of the CNN reporter Jim Acosta. To justify the decision, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, cited a moment of physical contact between Acosta and a White House intern at a press conference earlier that day. After Acosta challenged President Trump about his description of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion,” the intern attempted to take away Acosta’s microphone; as he shielded it, his hand touched her arm. The Trump Administration, Sanders wrote, in a tweet, will “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job.”

Then, around ten-thirty that evening, Sanders shared, in another tweet, an edited video of Acosta. It focusses on the moment of contact, in which Acosta’s hand appears to strike the intern’s arm in a chop-like motion. “We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video,” Sanders wrote. Shortly afterward, observers online began to point out that, in certain sections, its speed seemed to have been modified in a manner that exaggerated the forcefulness of the contact. The video, moreover, turned out to have originated from the Twitter account of Paul Joseph Watson, a contributor to the far-right site Infowars. Instead of retweeting Watson, Sanders, or someone handling her Twitter feed, had downloaded and re-uploaded the video, obscuring its source. The White House, in short, used a questionable video from a conspiracy Web site to justify banning a member of the press.

I e-mailed Hany Farid, an expert in digital-image forensics, to ask him whether the video had been altered. He replied with the results of his analysis. Parts of the video, he wrote, had been slowed down compared to the clip that aired on television. It was also blurrier. The loops had been added. Finally, there were a few repeated frames, which occurred just at the moment Acosta’s hand touched the intern’s arm. In a conversation with BuzzFeed, Watson denied deliberately slowing down, speeding up, or blurring the video; instead, he said, he’d simply downloaded an animated GIF image from the Twitter account of Farid confirmed that the repeated frames, the blurriness, and the slowdown, which helped “make the video more dramatic,” could all have been unintended results of “transcoding” the video, or converting it into and out of the GIF format.

A bigger issue, Farid pointed out, was non-technical: the camera angle. “If you look at original, higher-quality videos from other vantage points,” he wrote, “you can more clearly see that while there was some contact between the reporter and intern, he did not strike her as his hand comes down.” The perspective, coupled with the blurriness of the image—which makes it hard to discern where Acosta’s hand ends and the intern’s arm begins—create the impression that their contact was more substantive than it was. Farid concluded that the video Sanders shared was “misleading.” At the same time, he wrote, “I don’t see unambiguous evidence that it has been doctored.”

For this week’s issue of The New Yorker, I reported on the creation and detection of computer-generated, or “synthesized,” videos. This video is not one of them. As Farid and others have noted, it is misleading in a relatively ordinary, even old-fashioned, way. The most consequential act of manipulation committed by Sanders may have been her failure to attribute the clip to Infowars. And yet, for all its crudeness, the video gives us a glimpse of the future. In the coming years, as technology advances, we’ll have good reason to grow more skeptical about the videos we see. At the same time, we will struggle to make use of that skepticism. We will disagree about what words such as “doctored,” “manipulated,” and “faked” really mean (and videos can be misleading, of course, without having been altered at all). We will tumble down technical rabbit holes, arguing endlessly about image artifacts and compression algorithms, in debates that become their own distractions. To be destructive, videos don’t have to be perfectly or ingeniously manipulated; they need only present what Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, once called “alternative facts,” serving as evidence for one group and evidence of mendacity for another.