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Biden Battles Age Doubts and a Trail of Misleading Videos

Biden Battles Age Doubts and a Trail of Misleading Videos

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President Biden has many adversaries in this year’s election. There are his Republican opponent, former President Donald J. Trump, and the 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’ longstanding concerns about his age and abilities.

In the last two weeks, conservative news outlets, the Republican National Committee and the Trump team have circulated videos of Mr. 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:

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 Mr. 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 Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a rare Republican critic of Mr. Trump’s who is supporting Mr. 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.”

Driven by clips of Mr. 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 percent over the last two weeks compared with average activity, according to data from the firm PeakMetrics.

Some of the videos of Mr. 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 A.I. 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.”

Charles Franklin, the director of that poll, said the video clips fed a public perception that Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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.

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 spokeswoman 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.

The Biden campaign has an active rapid response effort underway across social media platforms and is also working to stoke questions about Mr. Trump’s mental fitness, sometimes seeming to echo Republican language about Mr. Biden.

“Here is a montage of Donald Trump getting confused, lost, wandering off, and waving to nobody,” a campaign social media account posted on Thursday, along with clips of Mr. Trump seemingly being redirected or nudged by others including his former vice president, Mike Pence.

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

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

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

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

“It was a great performance by any standard, but I think it was even better because the Republicans had created this expectation that the guy had a foot in the grave,” Mr. Goff said. He added, “People are going to see actual footage that contradicts that, and they’re going to be pleasantly surprised and constantly be reminded that the president is in a lot hardier shape than they’ve been told.”

Republican reliance on misleading imagery, he said, offers the Biden campaign an opening to “plant a seed of doubt in the minds of voters, every time you see an image or a video of Biden where he appears to be, you know, in bad shape, it’s quite possible that the Republicans are lying to you.”

Republicans argue that Democrats are too quick to dismiss unflattering — but unaltered — clips as “misinformation.”

“Cheap fake: any unedited video of Joe Biden’s cognitive decline that the Biden administration does not want the public to see,” read a post from a Trump campaign account.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, accused the Biden camp of suggesting that “anyone who clearly sees Biden acting like a brain-dead dope” must be part of a conspiracy.

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

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting. Videos edited by Caroline Kim.



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