Questions raised by exposing the man behind “drunk Pelosi” video

Note: This is something I originally published on the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

A modified video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that started circulating recently—with the vocal track slowed down to make her appear drunk—raised a number of questions, including why YouTube removed it but Facebook did not (although the latter down-ranked the clip in the News Feed algorithm and added a link to more reporting on the topic). Another question that arose in the wake of the viral storm created by the clip was who created and uploaded it, and on Saturday, that question appeared to be answered: a story by The Daily Beast said the original uploader was a 34-year-old day laborer, “Donald Trump superfan and occasional sports blogger” from the Bronx named Shawn Brooks.

Brooks, the story said, was the administrator behind a number of “hyper-partisan” Facebook pages and news websites, including PoliticsWatchdog and AllNews 24/7, and uploaded the first version of the video to both sites, including a version that suggested he had access to the “director’s cut,” according to the Daily Beast. Within a matter of hours, the clip had been shared over 60,000 times on Facebook and accumulated more than 4 million views, and from there it moved to Twitter and racked up tens of thousands of likes and retweets. The story described Brooks as “a proud member of Trump’s razor-thin African-American support base,” and mentioned that he is on probation for a domestic battery charge against his ex-girlfriend, and that some of his Instagram posts appear to be misogynistic.

Daily Beast writer Kevin Poulson said his story was a worthwhile lesson that “Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on disinformation,” and that fake news is the type of landscape where “even a hastily produced, low-budget fraud can fool millions if it lands just right.” But not long after it was posted, a number of critics—including many on the alt-right end of the spectrum—said the story was a sign of something else entirely: namely, a shameful attempt by the media to identify or “doxx” a previously anonymous citizen for the harmless crime of posting a video. Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald said it was “repellent to unleash the resources of a major news outlet on an obscure, anonymous, powerless, quasi-unemployed citizen for the crime of trivially mocking the most powerful political leaders.”

Others who jumped on board to criticize The Daily Beast included widely followed HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali—who said it “sets a really bad precedent when a private citizen has their identity publicly revealed simply because they made a video of a politician appearing to be drunk”—and freelance journalist Michael Tracey, formerly of The Young Turks. Jon Levine, media editor for The Wrap, called the article a “hit job over a joke video that happened to go viral,” and asked whether the media were planning to identify the creator of a similar video of Donald Trump that he said has been on Facebook for two years and has 400,000 views. When asked about these criticisms by CNN media reporter Brian Stelter on his show Reliable Sources on Sunday, Daily Beast editor Noah Shachtman defended the article, noting the hoax video reached “up to the highest levels of power, with Rudy Giuliani himself tweeting it out,” and therefore it was worth identifying the individual who created it, pointing out that Brooks spoke with Poulson for an hour in an on-the-record interview.

Brooke Binkowski, the former managing editor of fact-checking site Snopes.com, who now runs a site called Truth or Fiction that also does fact-checking, told CJR that the discussion about when to identify private individuals “is absolutely valid,” but argued that in this case, revealing Brooks’ identity was the right thing to do. People who track disinformation have had to deal with “a lot of really corrosive content” from one of the pages Brooks administered, she said, and that makes it important to know where the hoaxes and inflammatory content are originating and what the motive and methodology are behind them. Binkowski and others noted that it would be different if Brooks was just an ordinary person who uploaded a single video, but he is one of the architects of a network of fake news sites.

“People who put misinformation/propaganda online and actively try to spread it need to be held accountable, especially if it gets 2 million views,” said Mollie Bryant, who runs a journalism non-profit called Big If True. Joan Donovan, a disinformation expert who runs the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told CJR that the decision about whether to identify people like Brooks that create or spread disinformation and propaganda “is a very complex ethical issue.” At a time where there is heightened awareness of foreign operators seeking to polarize contentious issues by using platforms and fake identities, she said, “journalists must seek the original source, especially when ascribing intent.”

It’s also not strictly correct to accuse The Daily Beast of “doxxing” Brooks, since that term usually refers to publishing someone’s personal information, including home or work phone numbers, addresses, and other personally identifiable information so that someone can be harassed. Shachtman also pointed out that Brooks put his name on the sites that he published and/or administered, and had already identified himself on Twitter as an administrator of one of the Facebook pages before the Daily Beast article was published. Brooks, for his part, has started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for what he says is a potential lawsuit against the website for publishing an “inaccurate trash article.” He says he didn’t create the Pelosi video but just uploaded it like anyone else, and argues there are other errors in the story, including the way it describes his battery charge.

A number of observers, including Binkowski, pointed out that The Daily Beast story suggests Facebook verified Brooks’ identity, and that he was the one who first uploaded the modified Pelosi video, even confirming the exact time he uploaded two versions of the clip. “A Facebook official…said the video was first posted on Politics WatchDog directly from Brooks’ personal Facebook account,” the story says. “I think it’s worth commenting on how readily Facebook apparently gave up his identity,” Binkowski told CJR. “And yet they won’t reveal so many other things” that seem even more important when it comes to disinformation (CJR reached out to Facebook for comment but no one had responded by press time).

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