In my critical thinking class, I warn students that videos can easily be modified and weaponized as persuasive devices. While my past examples involved the usual conspiracy sites and oppressive states, the Trump administration has provided me with my first example of the White House making use of such a dishonest and deceitful tactic.
During a press conference, CNN’s Jim Acosta attempted to ask President Trump a question that Trump did not want to answer. In response, a White House employee was sent to take the microphone from Acosta. As she tried to take it from him, Acosta’s arm contacted her arm. The interaction was as awkward as one might expect—the woman probably expected Acosta to politely hand it over and Acosta probably didn’t expect her to try to grab it. The contact appears to be accidental on his part—he is gesturing as she reaches for the microphone. The matter would have been simply yet another awkward and surreal press conference at Trump’s White House were it not for the fact that Sarah Sanders tweeted what seems to be a modified version of the video of the event. This edited video seems to have been first distributed by Paul Joseph Watson who shares videos on Infowars.
In addition to the fact that the original event was witnessed by people present and on live television, the edited video has also been analyzed and shows clear evidence of alteration. To be specific, Acosta’s “pardon me, ma’am” was deleted from the audio and the motion of his arm was speeded up to make it look like a chop rather than accidental contact. As such, the video is an intentional deception designed to support the false narrative that Acosta “manhandled” the woman and thus was justly treated by the White House. This sort of deceit is to be expected from conspiracy sites that create their own deranged counterfactual tales of alternative realities to push questionable products upon the gullible. While the Trump administration gushes untruth like Niagara Falls pours forth water, the use of an altered video is another new low.
From a moral standpoint, the assessment of this action is easy: such deceit is morally wrong. In addition to the moral problem of lying, there is also the fact that the ongoing efforts to destroy truth are doing considerable damage. Since George Orwell and others have written at great length about the dangers of such distortions of reality, I am content to simply ride along on their wagon in this matter. What was done also seems stupid, given that the original event was witnessed, and the fakery is easy enough to discern. That said, there is a certain low cunning at work at the White House that serves them well.
The Trump administration and its allies have taken up the ancient banner of the Greek sophists—and under this banner there is no objective truth and all that matters is success. Or, as Trump likes to say, winning. Success is, of course, not defined in the moral sense that someone like Socrates or Aristotle would use—that is, achieving virtue and contributing to a virtuous society. It is, rather, success in the crude state of nature sense discussed by Thomas Hobbes—individual profit as the measure. But, one might say, surely everyone can see that such a altered video is a deceit and that it contradicts the objective facts of the matter.
One obvious problem is that some embrace the “value” system of Trump—all that matters is winning, and this means damaging the “other side” by any means necessary. It does not matter whether the video is accurate or not, what matters is its value as a weapon in the war against “them.” Another obvious problem is that there are those who will believe the lie as the truth. They will dismiss the analysis as the work of the enemy—thus attributing the deceit to them. They will also reject the statements of witnesses who disagree with the White House’s narrative and reject the unedited original video as being edited to hide the truth. There might also be those who do care about truth but are willing to take an ends justifies the means approach and accept that Trump needs to damage the media in order to do his “good works.”
It might be objected that I am part of the conspiracy and pushing the false narrative about the video or that I have been duped by the media. Being well-versed in classic skepticism, I am aware that there could be a massive media conspiracy to lie about Trump. However, accepting this would be to embrace an extremely dubious position—after all, Trump and his fellows routinely lie in the face of objective and unbiased evidence.
It could also be objected that I would forgive or defend Democrats for engaging in similar sorts of deceit. My obvious reply to this is that I would also condemn such deceit on the part of the Democrats, should they engage in doctoring videos and lying from official channels. I am not simply against deceits by Republicans, but against all deceits. And you should be, too—regardless of your party affiliation.