The day after the Andy Boden for Sheriff campaign attempted to shake down the local Republican Party, a doctored video was distributed purporting to show their opponent in a compromising #MeToo situation. The Boden campaign had specifically referenced said video in its shake down attempt. They claimed that the video had been obtained by off-duty corrections officers (men with badges and guns) in an unofficial political surveillance operation.
The doctored video was released to more than 150 media outlets, using a fake Facebook account, under the name of someone who does not exist. The Boden campaign refused to comment to the media. Candidate Boden likewise refused to comment.
In published stories, the media admitted that it could not locate any person associated with the fake Facebook account. 48 hours after the doctored video was posted, the fake Facebook account disappeared.
Nevertheless, several media outlets not only published the doctored video, but published a long, rambling press release – issued on a fake Facebook account by an entity that does not exist – treating it as a factual statement. And they did so despite the fact that they could not locate any actual person who would vouch for its authorship.
Despite clear evidence of alteration and it lack of provenance, these media outlets failed to test the technological accuracy of the doctored video. Surprisingly, they behaved as if they operated sometime in the 1950’s – before technological changes, particularly in digital technology, had turned the old phrase “seeing is believing” on its head. For instance, does anyone really believe that Tom Hanks is shaking the hand of President Kennedy in this video?
In September of last year, Bloomberg reported on the threat to authenticity posed by “deep fake video technology” and warned media outlets that “fake videos and audio keep getting better, faster and easier to make, increasing the mind-blowing technology’s potential for harm if put in the wrong hands.” The story suggested that all video should be closely examined and vetted by technological professionals before being cited as a source.
The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is clear:
- Ethical journalists take responsibility for their work. Verify information before releasing it.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves… Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
- Expose unethical conduct in journalism.
- Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
Those media that reported on this, handled it like a #MeToo situation. In fact, there was no complaint by anyone claiming to be a victim. Instead, the complaint came from the illicit surveillance operation.
Sources claim that the corrections officers who conducted the operation took what they had to the home of a former elected official/computer expert, and that he “cleaned it up” or “enhanced” it. The backstory here is that the corrections officers are angry with the incumbent Sheriff because the county jail is being downsized, which has placed some of their jobs in jeopardy. Off course, this downsizing is a consequence of Bail Reform passed as a ballot question in November 2014. With a dwindling jail population, the Sheriff cannot justify maintaining high levels of staffing and the consequent cost to property taxpayers in Sussex County. Estimates of the cost to refurbish the jail for other purposes run upwards of $60 million and the Freeholder Board is in no place to raise taxes or debt to accommodate such costs. The doctored video is seen as a desperate move by a few, very disgruntled, corrections officers.
That said, the role played by the media outlets tricked into distributing this video – and their willingness to be punked by a fake Facebook account – is a matter for concern, especially as it will only get easier to fake videos in the future. Perhaps this is a case for the Ethics Committee of the SPJ? Stay tuned…