Deceptively edited videos that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter and TikTok exaggerate the speech issues that have plagued John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, after he had a stroke in May.
Despite policies on both platforms against political misinformation, the videos remained up for days and were shared by Fetterman’s critics.
The videos include slight edits, such as cutting out the sound of the audience to make it appear as if he had abruptly stopped speaking (some of the stops occurred when he was pausing during moments of applause and crowd reaction, according to unedited videos seen by NBC News). Other edits cut Fetterman off midsentence, to create the perception that what he was saying was nonsensical.
Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, said in an email responding to the videos, “It is pretty sad and frankly desperate that Dr. Oz’s MAGA allies are deceptively editing videos of John speaking in order to mock him while he recovers from a stroke.”
Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz is Fetterman’s Republican opponent.
The videos could run afoul of Twitter’s rules against political misinformation, even though they are still available. The platform says it bans “synthetic, manipulated, or out-of-context media” that is “likely to result in widespread confusion on public issues.”
Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment. TikTok removed the videos that NBC News flagged to it, citing its “integrity and authenticity” policy, which includes rules about misinformation.
The videos are among the highest-profile pieces of misleading video to circulate ahead of the midterms, although they are not the first in this race. Another “cheapfake,” a term for a lightly doctored piece of media, was spread in which Oz appeared to pose for a photo with a sign that read “NO” instead of “OZ.”
In the past, platforms have taken action against viral videos of politicians that were manipulated. In the run-up to the 2020 election, doctored videos that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seem impaired went viral on social media. Experts have warned that such lightly edited videos, also sometimes called “shallow fakes,” can be particularly effective pieces of misinformation.
Fetterman gave the speech used in the edited video at a campaign rally Sunday. In it, he joked about some of the verbal slips that have come after his stroke, speaking slowly and sometimes appearing to insert extra words into his sentences or rephrase things midsentence, which his critics have zeroed in on.
Asking audience members whether they have ever faced health challenges, he referred to Oz, saying, “I truly hope for each and every one of you you didn’t have a doctor in your life making fun of it.”
Speculation about Fetterman’s health has reached a fever pitch over the last several weeks. Fetterman agreed to a debate with Oz only last week after he came under numerous questions and attacks from Oz and his supporters.
Fetterman, who has maintained a limited schedule since his stroke, has said he is working to improve his auditory processing and speech as he recovers. The Washington Post editorial board called on him to release his health records and for numerous debates to be held, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board also voiced concerns about Fetterman’s health.
The edited videos of Fetterman’s speech Sunday built on the speculation, gaining the most traction on Twitter when they were posted by Greg Price, a senior digital strategist at X Strategies, a conservative political consulting group.
One video Price tweeted Monday has over 600,000 views and has been shared hundreds of times. Another video he posted Monday, which appeared to be edited in a way that cuts out audience audio, has over 120,000 views on Twitter and was accompanied by the caption “In case you were wondering why John Fetterman’s handlers won’t let him debate….”
In Twitter messages exchanged with NBC News, Price did not respond to specific questions about how the videos were edited or where he got them. He said that Fetterman is “clearly unfit in every way to serve in the senate.”
After this article was published, Price tweeted that he sourced the video without the audience sound from someone else's Twitter account. He defended the edits made to the clip ,which spliced various clips together, saying, "I simply took things he said during a rally and edited them together into a Supercut."
The videos migrated to other social media platforms, as well. On TikTok, before the videos were removed, a search for “Fetterman” yielded a cut of the edited speech as the first recommended result, even though it was posted two days ago. One edited video posted on the platform has over 32,000 views.