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How Misleading Videos Are Trailing Biden as He Battles Age Doubts
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By The New York Times
Published 4 weeks ago on
June 21, 2024

President Biden faces a barrage of misleadingly edited videos circulated by opponents, exacerbating concerns about his age and competence ahead of the election, despite efforts by his campaign to debunk these narratives. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

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President Joe Biden has many adversaries in this year’s election. There are his Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, and independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

And then there is the distorted, online version of himself, a product of often misleading videos that play into and reinforce voters’ long-standing concerns about his age and abilities.

Videos Circulating About Biden

In the past two weeks, conservative news outlets, the Republican National Committee and the Trump team have circulated videos of Biden that lacked important context and twisted mundane moments to paint him in an unflattering light. Among other things, they created the impression that the president:

  • Wandered off during a meeting with other Group of 7 leaders, an image that The New York Post ran on its front page (he was greeting paratroopers).
  • Was escorted out of an event by his wife, Jill Biden, while President Emmanuel Macron of France stayed behind to greet veterans (a longer video showed the U.S. president greeting veterans before his exit and then walking out with his wife).
  • Struggled to sit down at a D-Day commemoration ceremony (after seemingly hesitating for an uncomfortable few seconds, he eventually took a seat when the next speaker was announced, as did others), an image that spawned wild and false claims. It also generated about 12,000 mentions across social media platforms — an unusual level of attention — and 372 English-language articles, according to Chiara Vercellone, a senior staff analyst for NewsGuard, a company that monitors online misinformation.

A New York Times review of these videos found that some scenes were cut short and taken out of context, while other clips were cropped in a way that omitted crucial details when compared with additional footage.

Campaigns and political groups have long disseminated damaging videos of their opponents, sometimes misleadingly edited ones.

But the flurry of clips released this month is a fresh reminder of the steep, multifront and evolving challenge that Biden, 81, faces in convincing voters that he is spry enough to serve another term. As polls show a close race, many Americans harbor doubts about his fitness — and selectively sliced snippets from his routine public appearances are fueling those worries and sending conspiracy theories spiraling across social media.

“They’ll go around the world twice before the truth can even wake up, and in many cases, people never hear what the truth is,” said former Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a rare Republican critic of Trump’s who is supporting Biden. “If you see those and that’s all you see, you’re going to walk away thinking there’s something wrong, like something’s going on, because you haven’t seen the truth and the correction, so yeah, I do think it’s damaging.”

President Joe Biden of the U.S., right, joins other world leaders as they watch a skydiving demonstration at the annual G7 Summit in Savelletri, Italy, on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Biden’s interaction with Italian paratroopers during a Group of 7 event in Italy last week became a widely shared moment after an edited video was circulated. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Concerns About Age and Mental Competence Surge

Driven by clips of Biden’s appearances at high-profile events commemorating Juneteenth and D-Day, posts on the social media platform X concerning his age and mental competence surged nearly 2,000% over the past two weeks compared with average activity, according to data from the firm PeakMetrics.

Some of the videos of Biden circulating during this year’s campaign are clearly manipulated to make him look old and confused. Others cut out vital context to portray him in a negative light, a process sometimes known as a “cheap fake” because it requires little expense or technological skill to create.

And some are simply brief, unedited clips of an octogenarian president who is an uneven public speaker prone to verbal miscues, who shuffles at times (his doctor has said he has a “stiffened gait,” partly because of arthritis) and who is otherwise showing signs of his age, his greatest and most persistent political liability.

The videos that are misleadingly cropped “follow a formula,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“They are low-cost and super easy to produce by clipping a video or narrowing the frame to eliminate or change the context, no fancy tech or AI needed,” he said. “Biden’s actual visuals, especially his physical unsteadiness and measured and stiff gait in a cropped frame, make the cheap fakes easier to produce and distribute rapidly. No question, we’ll see this spike.”

Poll: 79% of Voters See Biden as Too Old

A Marquette Law School poll released last month found that 79% of voters saw Biden as too old to be president, while 54% said the same about Trump. At 78 years old, the former president has had many of his own verbal stumbles, alongside his extensive record of promoting conspiracy theories and lies.

Charles Franklin, the director of that poll, said the video clips fed a public perception that Biden was too old.

“People that already are concerned about his age are quick to accept what they see in the video and not question whether that’s selectively edited,” Franklin said. “But seeing image after image of him, or video after video of him, over the last few years also boosts the perception that he’s too old.”

Biden has long been the subject of deceptive videos, including during his successful 2020 race.

But as he struggles with weak job approval nearly four months before Election Day, there are signs that years of damaging clips — however misleading many of them are — pose a real political risk.

“This isn’t a new narrative; it builds on an existing one, which tends to be much more effective,” said Claire Wardle, a co-founder of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University.

Campaign is Limited to Respond to Fake News

Political campaigns are limited in their abilities to respond to true misinformation online, in part because social media companies have struggled to track and react to huge volumes of fake or manipulated content. And all of the fact checks in the world can go only so far in a polarized country where basic realities are often filtered through a partisan lens.

Still, the Biden team is taking to the digital campaign trail and the White House podium to push back on misleading clips.

“Trump’s extreme rants look deranged and unhinged without any editing,” said Mia Ehrenberg, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, arguing that Republicans were “distorting footage” because they were struggling to effectively attack the president’s policy record.

“Voters deserve accurate information to inform their choice this November, and our campaign will be vigilant in calling out these lies when we see them,” she added.

And an interdepartmental team meets weekly to prepare for the potential effects of artificial intelligence and misinformation on the election, according to the campaign.

White House Weighs in on Clips

The White House has also weighed in. In response to questions at a news conference Monday, Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s press secretary, addressed several clips of him that have drawn attention online, calling them “cheap fakes” and bad-faith efforts to mislead.

Biden’s allies hope that next week’s debate will offer Americans a fuller picture of his capabilities — and a reminder of Trump’s penchant for falsehoods and outrageous statements. The videos of Biden that Republicans are pushing may also have the unintended effect of lowering expectations for his debate performance.

Teddy Goff, who served as digital director for former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, said Republicans had overplayed their hand before, including in the lead-up to Biden’s generally well-received State of the Union address.

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who is not working for Trump, said concerns about Biden’s age and mental fitness amounted to the most “sticky” narrative in the campaign — and that the viral videos made it harder for Biden to shake.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away fully,” he said, though he acknowledged that the debate presented an opportunity for Biden. “When you see just so many multiple examples of this in a row, perception becomes reality at some point.”

That is often the effect of “cheap fakes,” said Britt Paris, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who helped coin the term.

“It gets stuck in people’s minds because it proliferates,” she said. “There’s so many of them that people are like, ‘Oh, yeah. I guess that was true.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

By Katie Glueck, Tiffany Hsu and Ang Li/Kenny Holston and Erin Schaff
c.2024 The New York Times Company
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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