Facebook, Twitter deal with doctored photos, graphic videos as Afghanistan falls

Social networks continue to grapple with misinformation and offensive content. 

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A CNN reporter stands in front of a photo of a helicopter flying over the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, a city that has fallen into chaos. Underneath the image, a caption states: “Violent but mostly peaceful transfer of power.” 

The image, supposedly a screengrab of the network, circulated widely on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, prompting questions about its authenticity. How could the transfer be considered peaceful, some wondered. Was the language meant to be satire?

It turns out the image was fake.

Reuters and Politifact both fact checked the image and concluded that it, like so many photos before it, had been digitally altered. The doctored image borrowed a screenshot of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez from a 2020 broadcast of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over a police shooting. At the time, some conservatives criticized CNN for running the caption “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.”

Altered images and video, such as a doctored version of a Nancy Pelosi speech that made the House Speaker appear drunk, have plagued Facebook and Twitter for years. Now, the problem is resurfacing quickly as news pours out of Afghanistan, which quickly fell into turmoil as the US wound down a 20-year war. Just as before, social media outlets are resorting to labels and warnings to caution users about faked content.

On Sunday, Taliban fighters took over Kabul, the capital, and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Violence erupted at the city’s international airport with videos spreading through social media of people clinging to a US military aircraft as it took off or falling from another plane mid-air. The Associated Press, citing US senior military officials, reported that at least seven people died at the airport. 

On Facebook and its photo sharing service Instagram, the doctored CNN image was labeled as altered. “Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people,” the label said. The fake CNN caption was also used as a title in a YouTube video with different video footage and the altered image also spread throughout Twitter, which didn’t add a label. YouTube didn’t label the video and said it didn’t violate its rules.

The upheaval in Afghanistan poses a familiar challenge to social networks, which monitor their platforms for offensive content including graphic imagery. Some Facebook videos of people falling from planes warned users the content didn’t violate its rules but may show violent or graphic content. Similar videos also appeared on Twitter and TikTok without a label. 

On YouTube, some news outlets added their own warnings at the beginning of videos that cautioned users the imagery was graphic. But not all did. YouTube added age restrictions and a label to a video of people falling from a plane that was posted by the Hindustan Times, a big Indian newspaper. The label noted the “video may be inappropriate for some users.”

YouTube’s rules don’t allow violent, graphic or shocking content though it makes exceptions for content that is educational, documentary, artistic or scientific. The company said it also surfaces videos from authoritative sources during breaking news events.

A Facebook spokesman said the company has a dedicated team, “including Afghan nationals and native Dari and Pashto speakers,” to assess the situation in real time.

“Our teams continue to monitor the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, in consultation with our partners, and will take action on any content that violates these policies,” the spokesman said in a statement. Facebook’s online rules prohibit glorifying violence or celebrating the suffering of others but notes that it will include a warning screen for some gory content. 

Twitter pointed to its policies against violent organizations and hateful conduct. The company received criticism from some conservatives for allowing Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid to use its platform. The company didn’t immediately answer questions about whether the account violated its rules. 

The company has been testing a forum called Birdwatch that lets users flag tweets and write notes with more context. Some of the notes included content about Afghanistan. 

In one tweet that was rated as both “not misleading” and “potentially misleading,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted that US President Joe Biden “apparently” had “no plans” to speak about Afghanistan. Both of the notes said Rubio tweeted before Biden announced he would be speaking about the topic later on Monday. 

Other tweets users rated as misleading note that a video shared by some high-profile conservatives, including US Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, “attempt to frame CNN as proponents of the Taliban and their take-over of Afghanistan.” The video shows CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward reporting that Taliban fighters are “just chanting death to America, but they seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.”

TikTok didn’t immediately respond to questions about how it’s moderating content about Afghanistan. 

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