During a press conference at the White House Wednesday afternoon, CNN’s Jim Acosta got into a heated exchange with President Donald Trump. Acosta, a reporter already seen by Trump—and Trump’s supporters—as either merely an aggressive agent or as a literal secret agent, pressed Trump on how he characterized the so-called migrant caravan making its way through Central America as an “invasion.”
“They’re hundreds of miles away, that’s not an invasion,” Acosta said.
“Honestly, I think you should let me run the country. You can run CNN, and if you did it well, your ratings would be much higher” Trump replied.
As Acosta began another question, Trump looked around the room to call on another journalist. “That’s enough,” he told Acosta, as a White House staffer approached to remove the microphone from Acosta’s hand. The staffer grabbed the mic, but Acosta refused to let go.
What happened next is the cause of considerable debate. The controversy foreshadows a larger, looming debate—one not merely about the validity of video evidence, but about reality itself.
A few hours after the terse exchange, Acosta tweeted that his White House media pass had been revoked. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a statement soon after, along with video of the exchange, claiming that Acosta had assaulted the staffer who had attempted to take the mic from his hand. “President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his administration,” she wrote. “We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”
Sanders later posted a video that zoomed in on the moment where Acosta refused to release his grip on the microphone. It showed the moment when his arm made contact with the staffer’s. “We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video,” Sanders wrote in the attached tweet.
Debates like this one, over the legitimacy of video evidence, are just beginning.
That allegation was roundly denounced by other reporters in the room. By Thursday morning, it wasn’t just the interpretation of Acosta’s downward arm motion or contact with the intern that was the subject of frenzied online debate. It was, instead, whether the video Sanders posted had been doctored—sped up to appear as though Acosta had been more forceful.
In a tweet that, at this writing, has been shared nearly 30,000 times and liked over 19,000 times, Rafael Shimunov claimed to show evidence that the video had been doctored. This claim that was quickly picked up by a variety of mainstream news outlets and echoed by others performing their own video analysis.
“I’ve edited video for 15+ years,” Shimunov wrote in the tweet. “The White House doctored it.” Shimunov, who has professional experience in technology and media development, later clarified that the White House may not have actually altered the video. Instead, Sanders may have been sharing a clip that was manipulated elsewhere.
He pointed a finger at Paul Joseph Watson, a vocal right-wing conspiracy theorist often described as “alt-right” (though he disputes that label). Watson refuted the charge.
“The claim being made my [sic] some media outlets that I ‘sped up’ the Acosta video is a brazen lie,” he tweeted, attaching what he claimed is the “original editing,” wherein, he said, “no tracks are ‘sped up’… I just zoomed in.”
It all leaves us in a familiar spot. In the days following Trump’s inauguration, a similar debate erupted over his erroneous claims about the size of the crowd that witnessed his swearing in. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period,” then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer aggressively told reporters after the event.
It was, in fact, not at all the largest, a fact made all the more obvious by aerial photos released soon afterward. But the Trump White House stood by its claim, and in subsequent months, it was revealed that official photos of the inauguration were cropped by a government photographer “to make the crowd appear bigger following a personal intervention from the president.”
But photos are one thing. Video is entirely another.
Claims of doctored video have existed for decades—the Zapruder film remains controversial, for instance—but in the 21st century, amateur conspiracy sleuths, armed with increasingly effective editing software, have taken to analyzing video in the search for hidden clues that help bind together their alternative theories of global events. Since 9/11, video analysis has become a veritable cottage industry on YouTube, leading people down weirder and weirder paths and contributing to a splintering of accepted reality.
In 2015, work done by computer scientists from Germany and California suggested video analysis was about to enter a new, and stranger, phase after they released the first clips of a program designed to alter video in real time. Their software, called Face2Face, captures the facial movements of someone in a studio and superimposes those expressions onto a video of someone else—a world leader, for instance.
Since then, real-time video alteration has only grown more effective. Technologies that change other aspects of doctored videos — like audio — to make them more convincing have grown more powerful, too. And while there are still ways to spot a faked video (including how often the video subject blinks), knowing the truth will only become more difficult. The general public is usually either not aware of the technology or not sufficiently trained to recognize its effects when they occur.
Worse, however, will be a question of sourcing.
As the debate Thursday showed, determining ownership of a video found on the internet can often be frustratingly difficult, particularly if you’re trying to establish veracity against the instantaneously deadlines of a frenetic news cycle. It’s difficult to decide, in the mere moments of a video scrolling past on Twitter, whether one thing is more accurate than another. Without the ability to know where something came from, or how it traveled, figuring out how and when video may have been altered will quickly become a fool’s errand.
Already, the debate over the Acosta video is a wormhole of conspiracy and conjecture. This might be okay if it were limited to a strange corner of YouTube. The Acosta video debate, however, was created and already mainlined into legitimacy by very prominent and established outlets, none more so than the White House itself, which is attempting — whether conscious or not if the video had been altered — to establish, just as it had following Trump’s inauguration, its own narrative of accepted events.
Whether or not you believe the White House’s account of what transpired, or those who claim the video has been altered, one thing is certain: this is the new reality. Debates like this one, over the legitimacy of video evidence, are just beginning. Things will only get weirder from here.