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Conservative pundits falsely claim Biden slept during Maui fire memorial

Using low-quality video that distorts how Biden appears, pundits made the false claim go viral on social media.
President Joe Biden in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 21, 2023.
President Joe Biden in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Monday.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

Conservative pundits used low-quality video on social media platforms Tuesday to spread a false claim that President Joe Biden fell asleep during a memorial for Maui wildfire victims. 

Fox News host Sean Hannity was among those who shared low-resolution video on X, the social media app formerly known as Twitter. Hannity’s post was viewed more than 425,000 times within a few hours, and similar videos posted by others received thousands more views on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. 

Higher-resolution video from the nonpartisan network C-SPAN shows that Biden looked downward for about 10 seconds while he was seated at a table. In the video, Biden watches someone who’s speaking, coughs, looks downward and then nods in agreement with the speaker. Then he looks up again. He later delivered a speech to the same audience. 

The higher-resolution video shows that Biden kept his eyes open for most of the time he was looking downward. His open eyes aren’t clearly visible in the lower-quality videos. 

At least one member of Congress, Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, also shared the lower-resolution version on X.

A spokesperson for Nehls said in a statement: “Everyone with eyes can draw their own conclusion about whether President Biden was nodding off in the video.” 

Asked for comment about the Maui videos, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in an email: “It’s unfortunate they feel the need to lie. Instead, they should join him in supporting the people of Maui.”

The posts on the country’s largest social media platforms, which largely appear to be spreading unchecked, are the latest test of how Silicon Valley will handle misinformation in the 2024 election cycle — and whether it will enforce its own policies.

Low-quality videos are an example of what some misinformation researchers call “cheap fakes”: media that can mislead people through simple techniques, even amid growing concerns about more advanced ways to create misleading content through generative artificial intelligence. Another well-known example involved then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a video that someone slowed down to make it sound as if she was slurring her words. 

The misleading content of the social media posts dovetails with one of the nicknames, “Sleepy Joe,” that former President Donald Trump has used for Biden. 

Republicans aiming to defeat Biden in next year’s presidential election have often focused on signs of his age, a concern that’s widespread even among Democrats. Biden, 80, has responded by increasingly cracking jokes about his age, while his advisers appear to be taking steps to minimize the job’s physical toll, including using fewer stairs

Trump, 77, has a wide lead in national and state polls over other Republicans for the party’s presidential nomination, although resistance within the party remains. 

The posts about Biden’s visit to Maui are the latest attempt by right-wing media to bend the rules of social media platforms, especially tech billionaire Elon Musk’s X app. Last month, conservative pundits spread conspiracy theories without evidence about the drowning death of the Obama family’s personal chef. 

Although Musk has changed many of X’s rules since he bought it last year, X’s website still has a written policy against sharing misleading media

X didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment about the Hannity video. Fox News, on which Hannity has a show, also didn’t immediately respond to an email request. Hannity also didn’t immediately respond to a reply to his X post. 

Several videos on YouTube used the lower-resolution video to allege that Biden fell asleep. One, from pundit Tim Pool, had 116,000 views; another, from The Hill newspaper, had 118,000 views; and a third, from a self-described motorcycle enthusiast, had 3,100 views. 

YouTube bans misleading content if it has been “technically manipulated or doctored in a way that misleads users (beyond clips taken out of context) and may pose a serious risk of egregious harm.” It also has a policy of reducing the spread of “borderline” videos that come close to crossing its line but don’t. 

YouTube didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment. Pool and The Hill also didn’t immediately respond. 

A post on Instagram from the account students4trump had 28,584 likes after about five hours Tuesday, according to the platform’s publicly viewable tally. The post paired the allegation that Biden fell asleep with the lower-quality video on a loop. 

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, has a written policy to remove “certain highly deceptive manipulated media,” but it says that there’s no way to articulate a comprehensive list of what is prohibited and that it relies on the advice of outside experts. 

Meta didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment. 

A search of TikTok turned up numerous videos alleging that Biden fell asleep, again using low-resolution video. One of the posts, a video from the account user4794022699383, received more than 67,000 views. 

TikTok’s written policies disallow misleading content that may cause “societal harm,” although it doesn’t define the term. TikTok says it relies on outside fact-checkers, such as PolitiFact and Reuters. 

TikTok said it had no immediate comment on the videos.