Republicans Turn To Cheap Fakes In The Presidential Election | Crooked Media
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June 25, 2024
What A Day
Republicans Turn To Cheap Fakes In The Presidential Election

In This Episode

  • Ready or not, tomorrow is debate day. And both President Joe Biden, 81, and former President Donald Trump, 78, are under a lot of pressure to show they’re fit for re-election. While Biden hunkers down at Camp David to prepare, Trump has been getting an assist from his supporters sharing selectively edited “cheap fake” videos that pray on voter concerns over Biden’s age. Tom Nichols, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins us to talk about why Republicans are resorting to spreading these easily debunked videos, and why they’re so insidious.
  • And in headlines: The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men must enter the military draft, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange pleaded guilty to one felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing U.S. military secrets, and the U.S. surgeon general declared gun violence a public health crisis.


Show Notes:



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Alexis Johnson: It’s Wednesday, June 26th. I’m Alexis Johnson. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson and this is What a Day. The show where we’re very intrigued by a plan developed by French economist Gabriel Zucman to tax the world’s 3000 billionaires. 


Alexis Johnson: The plan would net an extra $250 billion per year in tax revenue, which gets a big oui merci from us. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Paying their fair share. What kinds of crazy schemes will they think of next? [music break]


Alexis Johnson: On today’s show, the U.S. Surgeon General declares gun violence is a public health emergency in the country. Plus, the judge in disgraced former President Trump’s hush money case has partially lifted the gag order. Unfortunately, so prepare yourself to hear a lot more from Trump about this case. 


Tre’vell Anderson: We going to be very sick of him very soon, if you are not already. But first, ready or not, tomorrow is debate day. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off for 90 minutes on CNN starting at 9 p.m. eastern. And frankly, both of them are under a lot of pressure to show that they’re fit for reelection. Whoever wins in November, they’ll be the oldest person ever elected president. Joe Biden is 81. Donald Trump just turned 78. And Trump is also dealing with the extra baggage of being a convicted felon now. So the stakes really couldn’t be any higher. 


Alexis Johnson: Yeah Tre’vell, I know that Biden has spent the last few days holed up with his team at Camp David to study and practice for the debate, but what about Trump? What have he and his campaign been doing? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Well, Trump is reportedly holding some informal policy meetings with his advisers, but mostly he’s just running his mouth on the campaign trail. And of course, he’s going very low. At rallies over the weekend he spent some time attacking the CNN moderators as biased. He also made fun of Biden for actually preparing to debate, which I guess is something just so absurd. But the Trump campaign has also gotten some help preying on concerns about Biden’s age ahead of the debate with these deceptively edited videos known as cheap fakes. The Republican National Committee and Trump’s son, Donald Junior, posted one from Biden’s trip to France this month, where it looked like he was trying to sit down in a chair that wasn’t there. But the full video shows nothing of the sort. There was a chair actually there, and the president was just waiting for his defense secretary to be introduced as the next speaker at the event. 


Alexis Johnson: I actually do remember seeing something along those lines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, and then there was another video from this month’s G7 summit in Italy posted by the RNC and later shared by the New York Post. It was made to look like Biden was wandering off from a skydiving demonstration, but that’s only because it was cropped to cut out the group of paratroopers he walked over to greet. Still, even though these videos are essentially lies, these so-called cheap fakes get millions of views before they can be rebutted. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre even had to address them during a press briefing last week. 


[clip of Karine Jean-Pierre] I think that it tells you everything that we need to know about how desperate Republicans are here. Instead of talking about the president’s performance in office, and what I mean by that is his legislative wins, what he’s been able to do for the American people across the country. We’re seeing these manipulated videos. 


Alexis Johnson: Yeah, this is some scary stuff we’re talking about. But how are cheap fakes different from deep fakes? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Cheap fakes are just existing videos that are lightly edited to make it look like something happened that didn’t. Deep fakes, on the other hand, are fully doctored to depict someone saying or doing something that never happened. I wanted to learn a little bit more about why cheap fakes in particular, are so insidious. And so I spoke with Tom Nichols. He’s a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he recently wrote about why Republicans are resorting to spreading these easily debunked videos. I started by asking him why they’re such politically potent weapons in the first place. 


Tom Nichols: Well, because images really matter in public communication. Used to be that we got our information through the written word, 50 years ago, when I was a boy, my parents read the newspaper. The evening news was only 26 minutes maybe, but now people live through their screens, and so a very evocative image or in a very evocative few moments of video can really stick with somebody. And you see this, for example with TikTok, right, that a minute of TikTok can go around the world, go viral because it’s easy to watch. It doesn’t require you to do anything. You’re not trying to read it or comprehend it. But also the problem is, of course, with any kind of deception, I think it’s attributed to Winston Churchill. But the famous saying is that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Right. And do we have an idea of who’s behind these cheap fakes? I remember there was some reporting after the last election about how Russia was using social media bots to infiltrate our election. Is that happening here as well? Any sense? 


Tom Nichols: Well, who’s behind all this? Everybody. Everybody is. A kid in his basement playing with Photoshop is behind this. Russians being very clever with video are behind this. The Chinese pumping images into the American bloodstream are behind this. But you know, so is your uncle who shares dumb memes which, you know, anybody can make in ten seconds. Anybody can do this. And the problem is that anybody can do this, and anybody has. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Would it also be accurate to say that cheap fakes are in a way harder to debunk than, say, deep fakes. 


Tom Nichols: I think, you know, in some ways the deceptive editing stuff is more dangerous because first of all, it’s easier. And second of all, it’s based on real stuff. I mean, think about it, Tre’vell. If it were you, right? Would you rather have somebody sample your voice and create something completely fake that you could say, look, that’s completely AI nonsense. I never said any of that. Or would you rather be up against somebody who took actual things you said and snipped out a few things here and there, because then you’re left with saying, well, yeah, I did say some of that, but I said something else, or I was in this place where I was filmed, but I wasn’t like with the Biden tape, right where he’s, looks like he’s wandering off. Well, he does look like he’s wandering off, but it’s not a total fake. So if someone says, well, was he there? Did he do that? Well, yes. But you couldn’t see the guy that was five feet standing to his left. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 


Tom Nichols: So in that sense, the people worrying about AI are missing the easy target here, which is that you can take video and audio of people doing real things and saying real stuff and make that more damaging by snipping and editing carefully. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And that brings us to what we’ve seen from the Trump campaign and the Republican Party, amplifying these so-called cheap fakes and other easily disproveable lies, it seems, on its face, kind of desperate, especially given the fact that, you know, Trump’s performance in all of the polls, the national polls, the swing state polls is actually quite strong. But what’s your estimation in terms of why they’re amplifying these lies? 


Tom Nichols: Yeah, some of it, I think is fear. We keep talking about Trump being ahead, but they may think that they’re not as ahead as they need to be, and that they really have to get the spotlight off of their guy who has become, let’s face it, increasingly weird. Trump’s behavior over the past three or four weeks, especially since he was convicted of all those felonies, has become really strange, even by Donald Trump’s standards. But it’s also there’s no penalty for doing it. They do it because it works and it works especially on their base who just sort of eats up whatever they serve up. And it’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s low cost. There’s no real penalty or price for doing it. So why not do it. Why not flood the zone. As Steve Bannon said years ago, you know, flood the zone with shit and let it rip. Why not? 


Tre’vell Anderson: I mean, it definitely seems like that’s what’s happening. And interestingly enough, right, in the past few years, we know that American’s trust in the mainstream media has eroded, especially among Republicans. A Gallup poll last year found that only 11% of Republicans reported having a great or fair amount of trust in mass media. That was compared to 58% of Democrats. I list that to ask, what’s your estimation of the debunking, even registering right among those folks who are already part of that base, like you mentioned? 


Tom Nichols: Yeah, I think the problem here [sigh] is that the American right now lives in a kind of epistemic bubble. What I mean by that is this. I’m a former Republican. So back in the ’80s, I was a young Republican guy and I was one of the I, you know, it was all young guys. I always got pissed at the media because I felt like they had it in for Ronald Reagan. Right? You know, it was classic early ’80s stuff, but I trusted what I was hearing. Like if they said unemployment today was 4.6%, I didn’t say, man, those guys are lying. What you have now is that literally CNN or ABC could say it’s raining outside and people would say, there they are in the pocket of deep weather, you know, you have this weird epistemic disconnect. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling out the media for bias in any direction. That’s different than saying everything they tell you is a lie. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. Yeah. 


Tom Nichols: And that’s where I think a lot of people on the right have landed that I find really concerning really kind of frightening in a way. So I think when it comes back to these, you know, fakes. All they really do is just kind of provide the sort of the mortar that holds the bricks of these illusions together. And even when you disprove any one of them, people say, yeah, but it’s still true. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. 


Tom Nichols: In a big sense. The wall does not come down. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Which feels like, to your point, kind of an intentional thing by the Republican Party to just keep feeding whatever the beast is because it’s a win win for them, regardless of whether it’s true or not. My question for you, though, is what options do Democrats have at their disposal to effectively combat this kind of disinformation? 


Tom Nichols: Well, among the Republican base, none. You’re not going to change the views of the base. I think with everybody else, there’s a dilemma. The dilemma is that when you refute a false story, you’re repeating it. You don’t want to have to go out there once a day and say, hey, no matter what anybody tells you, I didn’t rob a bank. Because if you say it enough times, people will say so maybe he did rob a bank, you know? Why are you talking about bank robbery so much, man? 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laugh] Right, right. 


Tom Nichols: But on the other hand, I think you pick your targets and you say, look, I think, like with the Biden edit in Italy, that was a great example of saying this is the crap that’s being shoveled at you. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. So this brings me to my last question for you. The first presidential debate is Thursday. In what ways could we see the theoretical cheap fakes from the debate come into play heading into the election? 


Tom Nichols: Any time you have two candidates standing there like that, just talking and talking. You could splice video to have Joe Biden saying, I’m a communist and I have jelly beans on my socks. But I think not having an audience there, shutting off the mics and having moderators is going to cut down on that a lot, because there will be transcripts. There’s going to be video. I’m actually not really worried about a lot of cheap fakes coming out of the debate, to be honest with you. But I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens, especially when Trump can’t say, well, I was misunderstood or I didn’t get a chance to respond, because there’s going to be a lot of rules to this debate that I don’t think work very well for him. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with Tom Nichols, staff writer at The Atlantic. We’ll link to his piece in our show notes. 


Alexis Johnson: Thanks for that, Tre’vell. Well, that’s the latest for now. We’ll get to some headlines in a moment, but if you like our show, make sure to subscribe and share it with your friends. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]




Alexis Johnson: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Alexis Johnson: On Tuesday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men must be drafted into the military, which they have been historically exempt from for religious reasons. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as haredim, make up about 14% of the Israeli population. The ultra-Orthodox population skews very young, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, and almost a quarter of the men are military recruitment age Israelis. The court also ruled that the government could stop funding religious schools if their students don’t participate in the draft. The question of haredim participating in the draft has long been a topic of debate. This ruling is a big deal right now, though, because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long relied on the support of the ultra-Orthodox groups to stay in power, and it could disrupt that. The new draft won’t go into effect immediately, while legislation and procedural processes work themselves out in the meantime. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has pled guilty to one felony count of illegally obtaining and disclosing U.S. military secrets, ending his 12 year extradition battle. After reaching a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors Monday, Assange was released from the British prison, where he spent the last five years and boarded a plane to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific. He entered his guilty plea in court Wednesday morning, local time. The guilty plea stems from his 2019 indictment on more than a dozen counts for publishing classified military records, with the help of former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010. In exchange for his guilty plea, the U.S. Justice Department agreed to seek a prison sentence equal to the amount of time Assange has already served. Prior to his imprisonment, Assange spent seven years living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited by Sweden on sexual assault charges, which Assange denied. That case has since been dropped, and Assange is now a free man and is expected to return to his native Australia. 


Alexis Johnson: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is back in the news with another warning for the public, this time about gun violence. Murthy’s office released a statement on Tuesday declaring gun violence as a public health crisis. The announcement came with a 40 page report detailing how mass shootings have impacted communities across the country, and what lawmakers could do to curb firearm related incidents. Some recommendations include mandating universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and investing more in mental health resources. And while the impact of gun violence is largely common knowledge, Murthy hopes that framing the issue from a public health perspective will lead to more policy changes. March for Our Lives, a student run organization that was founded by survivors of the 2018 Parkland shooting, put out a statement on Tuesday praising Murthy’s report. Here’s what Ryan Barto, the communications director for March for Our Lives, told us. 


[clip of Ryan Barto] As the advisory stated today we need to address gun violence’s true causes. And with a preventative approach. We know that the decision to pick up a gun, whether to harm someone else or to harm oneself, only occurs after a cascading series of policy failures. Enough is enough. We need a public health approach in this country that addresses these policy failures with solutions that prevent harm long before it takes place. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Justtice Juan Merchan partially lifted Donald Trump’s gag order on Tuesday, allowing the former president to talk about the witnesses and jurors in his hush money trial. Last month, Trump was convicted of 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide his affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Trump was strictly barred from attacking any of the jurors in his case during the trial. But now that the jury has been discharged, Merchan changed the rule. A separate order still bars Trump and his team from sharing the names and addresses of any jurors. The former president is also still not allowed to speak publicly about any members of the prosecution or court staff members until he is sentenced. But Merchan and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are fair game for public commentary. And so I guess we can all expect, you know, Donald Trump to let the choppa sing okay on all of these people because he’s been waiting. 


Alexis Johnson: And, you know, he will and you know, he will. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Ugh. Hate that for us. 


Alexis Johnson: I hate that for us. And finally, an update on the primary races we mentioned on Tuesday’s show. Squad member rep Jamaal Bowman lost his reelection campaign for New York’s 16th district to centrist Democrat George Latimer in the most expensive House race in history. In Colorado, MAGA Republican Lauren Boebert won her election in the state’s fourth congressional district after switching districts to a more Republican friendly electorate. And Utah’s polls were still open at the time of this recording. And those are the headlines. 




Alexis Johnson: That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review and tell Judge Merchan to get that Trump gag order back up and running permanently and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you’re into reading, and not just about the difference between cheap fakes and deep fakes like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Alexis Johnson: I’m Alexis Johnson. 


[spoken together] And Vivek Murthy, come on the pod. 


Alexis Johnson: Come on. We’d love to have you. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, I got some questions for you, okay? 


Alexis Johnson: Seriously, let’s talk about it. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Michell Eloy, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison, and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.