A couple of weeks ago, a video of Nancy Pelosi apparently slurring her words went viral on Facebook. Someone had monkeyed with the footage, slowing it down to make it seem like she was drunk or on sedatives. This fact was quickly discovered and the media spent several days debunking the “drunk Pelosi” meme. Most of us moved on with our lives. The folks at the Daily Beast did not.
A Daily Beast “journalist” by the name of Kevin Poulsen spent the next several days trying to, for some reason, locate the random Facebook user who made the original fake video. Finally, Poulsen, the crack investigator, solved the case. He discovered that the alleged originator of the meme was a blue collar day laborer from the Bronx. Poulsen published those findings in a lengthy expose this past Sunday, including details about the memer’s location, personal life, work history, and criminal record.
Is this anything more than partisan vengeance against a man who briefly embarrassed Nancy Pelosi? It’s difficult to see how it could be anything other than that. Everyone now knows the video was fake. Most of the people who shared it probably already knew. There does not appear to be anything particularly relevant about the biographical details of the Joe Blow who created the thing. He’s not a Russian spy or a Republican operative or anyone of note. He’s just some guy. Exposing him is punishment, vengeance, not news reporting.
But that’s not even the most troubling thing about this story. The most troubling thing comes two paragraphs into the Daily Beast article:
Thirteen minutes later, a Facebook official told The Daily Beast, Brooks posted a very different Pelosi video to a Facebook page called Politics WatchDog—one of a series of hyperpartisan news operations Brooks runs (with help, he claims). This clip had been altered to slow Pelosi down without lowering the pitch of her voice. The effect was to make it sound as though the Speaker of the House was slurring her words drunkenly while criticizing Donald Trump.
And then a few paragraphs later:
It’s conceivable that someone else actually edited the clip. But a Facebook official, confirming a Daily Beast investigation, said the video was first posted on Politics WatchDog directly from Brooks’ personal Facebook account.
We have come to expect that partisan hatchet-men masquerading as journalists will doxx their ideological enemies. But it is an entirely different matter for Facebook itself to willingly participate. Poulsen apparently called a Facebook official and, simply by asking, was able to obtain private information about a user’s activity.
Brooks did not want his affiliation with those politically charged Facebook pages to be made public. He made that clear to Poulsen:
At first Brooks didn’t respond to emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages and a direct message over Instagram, and he blocked this reporter on Twitter. On Friday he called back, explaining that he was worried over the prospect of being publicly linked to the video fakery.
“I’m in New York City,” he said. “Very liberal. People make judgments. I just don’t want to be linked to a conservative right-winger and be potentially denied services and stuff… People are nasty. You should see some of the messages that are coming in.”
Yet not only Poulsen, but also Facebook, unceremoniously ripped away that cover of anonymity. This is a stunning breach of privacy by a company that claims to value its user’s privacy above all else. And who knew it was that easy? I have always been skeptical about Facebook’s privacy claims, but even I didn’t think they would just cough up your user data to any reporter who happens to ring their doorbell.
This transcends politics. Anyone who claims to value privacy ought to be up in arms. And terrified. If they can do this to some random meme-maker in the Bronx, they can do it to you.