On Wednesday night, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared a video on her official Twitter account to justify the revocation of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House media credential. The clip Sanders shared showed the moment from President Donald Trump’s press conference when an intern tried to grab a microphone from Acosta’s hand and he refused to let go. You can see the original clip of the incident from C-SPAN here:
The footage Sanders shared didn’t look quite the same. You can see that video here:
Sanders’ video had no sound and zoomed in for added emphasis. Also, at the crucial moment when the intern reaches for the mic and Acosta’s arm comes down, Sanders’ version of the clip looks faster and more dramatic than the original C-SPAN version.
The clip Sanders shared looks identical to one tweeted earlier on Wednesday by Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at Infowars and notorious peddler of false information. (On Thursday morning, Watson tweeted that the suspect in the Thousand Oaks, California, mass shooting was “a Middle Eastern man with a beard in his 20s.” It turned out to be a white former Marine.) I’m a longtime video editor, and Watson and Huckabee’s version of the clip looked suspicious to me. I shared those suspicions on Twitter.
The story became a social media sensation overnight, with some convinced it showed the White House plucking manufactured evidence from a conspiracy site and others arguing it revealed that Acosta assaulted an intern. I was in the first camp. CNN’s vice president of communications weighed in, describing Huckabee’s tweet as “absolutely shameful,” and the White House News Photographers Association said it was “appalled to learn that the White House spokesperson may have shared a manipulated video.”
After analyzing the videos more extensively, I have no doubt that the two clips are different. But the truth is it’s difficult to know how or why the footage changed. In a side-by-side comparison, I noticed the clips didn’t sync, with the one Sanders shared appearing to be sped up and slowed down at points. Looking closer at the clip using video-editing software, I found three duplicate frames between the moment the White House intern made contact with the microphone in Acosta’s hand and his arm moving down. Where did these come from?
Watson told BuzzFeed he ripped his clip from a Daily Wire GIF, zoomed in, and exported his version as an MP4, a common compressed video file format. He denied “doctoring” the clip intentionally. To my eye as a video editor, the glitch is suspiciously timed, and I can’t say for certain why they’re there. You can see my detailed comparison here:
They may seem small, but these changes make a big difference. With that extra pause, it’s conceivable that some viewers will interpret Acosta’s move as more jarring, and even violent. I asked Oliver Lucian Anderson, a veteran video editor I’ve worked with before, what he saw. “I think the arm pause is the most suspect frame in here,” he told me. Still, he said, “while the grab for the mic looks slowed down and the reporter’s swing motion doesn’t match between the two, the differences are subtle enough that people will ultimately see what they want to see.”
Those slight alterations in perspective can be dangerous. As Jonathan Albright, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, put it to the Washington Post, “The most dangerous type of fake news and reporting and evidence is when you get into the fine details, the nuanced things that are shaped to present a certain viewpoint or decision or news a certain way.” He added, “It’s not AI-generated or completely false. It’s something that’s real but has been literally stretched … and molded into weaponized evidence.”
Is it possible compression and format changes explain the difference between the clips? It is, and some have argued that is likely what happened. I remain skeptical. But as of yet, there is no real evidence anyone altered the video intentionally. Sanders was clearly trying to justify Acosta’s suspension by sharing the video, and the version she tweeted out appears more dramatic than the original C-SPAN clip, so it no doubt served her needs. It’s also disturbing that Sanders would use her platform to send out a video created by someone who works for Infowars. That should be something we can all agree on, even if you don’t think the video was intentionally doctored.