It is disturbing enough that American democracy is being threatened by disinformation, the proliferation of which is facilitated by the shadier side of modern technology — phony websites, social-media bots, manipulated video and audio, digitally fabricated “deepfakes.” How painful to be reminded that among the bad actors spreading such chaos and division are prominent elected officials sworn to serve the public.
Last weekend, Representative Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican, shared a video clip featuring Ady Barkan, a progressive activist, asking Joe Biden, “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding for police?” To which Mr. Biden responded, “Yes, absolutely.”
Except that Mr. Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and communicates with the aid of a computerized voice, had not included the words “for police” in his question. Those were spliced in by Mr. Scalise’s team, making it seem as though Mr. Biden was expressing direct support for defunding the police — something he explicitly opposes, no matter how loudly Republicans claim otherwise. Mr. Biden’s criminal justice plan, in fact, includes $300 million in additional funding for police departments.
Outraged by the violation, Mr. Barkan called out the congressman. “@SteveScalise, These are not my words,” he tweeted on Sunday afternoon. “I have lost my ability to speak, but not my agency or my thoughts. You and your team have doctored my words for your own political gain. Please remove this video immediately. You owe the entire disability community an apology.”
It is one thing for Russian trolls or shadowy political groups to manipulate videos with an eye toward misleading American voters. For a sitting lawmaker — the No. 2 Republican in the House, no less — to do so is inexcusable.
On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a complaint against Mr. Scalise with the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent entity tasked with reviewing allegations from the public about congressional misconduct. If deemed appropriate, the complaint could be referred to the House Ethics Committee.
This is a welcome development, but it is not enough. The idea that Mr. Scalise is uniquely unscrupulous — that he is the only lawmaker who will let his partisan passions and ambitions get the better of him — is naïve. Before the situation devolves further, both chambers of Congress need to establish strict policies prohibiting lawmakers and staff members from engaging in this kind of dupery and clarifying the penalties for violations.
So far, Mr. Scalise seems not to grasp the gravity of his offense. He initially responded to Mr. Barkan’s criticism by tweeting more attacks on Democrats. Twitter flagged the disputed video as “manipulated.” Sunday night, the congressman bowed to the outcry, tweeting that he would remove the clip, even as he argued that he was in the right.
Mr. Scalise has clung to this defense, repeatedly insisting that the video was merely “edited” to capture the true essence of Mr. Biden’s longer, more involved exchange with Mr. Barkan on police reform. “We paired the police portion with Barkan’s final question for clarity because we couldn’t include an entire three-minute clip in a one-minute montage,” Mr. Scalise’s spokesman told The Washington Post.
But, as even Mr. Scalise acknowledged to Fox News, the video should not have been altered. Period. No matter how low-tech or minor the manipulation, it crossed a line, putting the congressman on the wrong side of a battle in which the bad guys are ascendant.
It’s not as though he didn’t know any better. The House Ethics Committee issued a memo in January warning against the “intentional use of audio-visual distortions and deep fakes.” Posting doctored material could harm public discourse, erode the public trust and “reflect discreditably on the House,” the committee noted. “Accordingly, members, officers and employees posting deep fakes or other audio-visual distortions intended to mislead the public may be in violation of the Code of Official Conduct.” The memo stressed that shifting the blame onto rogue staffers was not a legitimate excuse.
The Ethics Committee has a range of options for dealing with misbehavior by members — from issuing a letter of reproval (which requires the support of only a majority of committee members) to recommending monetary fines, a formal reprimand or even censure by the full House. Party leadership has other, more informal options, such as stripping members of committee seats or other privileges.
Historically, Congress has not been great about policing its own, and members may ultimately decide to give Mr. Scalise a pass for this infraction. This would be a mistake. His deception ought to serve as a red flag. Going forward, the House needs sturdier guardrails and more specific guidelines making clear that it will not tolerate any attempt to defraud the American people through doctored video and audio.
The spread of political disinformation is a danger to the nation, one likely to get worse before it gets better. “Since we can’t rely on the responsibility of individual actors or the platforms they use, I fully expect there will be a proliferation of these sorts of fictions to a degree that nearly drowns out actual facts,” warned Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, in 2018, about the rise of video manipulation tools.
Congress needs to get serious about discouraging its own ranks from fueling the problem.