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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facing a widely predicted onslaught of fake political videos before the 2020 election, social media companies are the bulwark that will either keep the videos at bay or allow them to flood the internet.

But, but, but: These platforms are loath to pass judgment on a clip's veracity on their own — an approach experts say could lead to a new election crisis.

"A deepfake could cause a riot; it could tip an election; it could crash an IPO. And if it goes viral, [social media companies] are responsible," says Danielle Citron, a UMD law professor who has written extensively about deepfakes.

The big picture: Edited videos, from the most basic tweaks to the most convincing AI-fueled deepfakes, are swiftly becoming easier to create. So far we've only seen simple manipulations — "cheapfakes," they're sometimes called — but experts almost universally believe that more sophisticated forgeries are coming.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have massive power over what people watch, hear and read on the internet. But they have long insisted that they're not media companies and shouldn't decide what is true and what isn't.

  • They have instead relied on their existing rules against things like nonconsensual porn and election manipulation — if a fake video falls into those categories, it's gone.
  • They also watch for behaviors that suggest a botnet or coordinated misinformation campaign.
  • But manipulated videos that don't set off either alarm can fall through the cracks.

In interviews with Axios, experts largely rejected the platforms' reasoning and said they have a responsibility to prepare for the 2020 elections.

  • Citron says shrinking away from arbitrating truth is a "cop-out" and that platforms should more aggressively block and filter out potentially dangerous edited videos.
  • Jack Clark, policy director at OpenAI, says companies can do more to verify whether or not a video was taken by the person who posted it and that they should plaster huge banners across manipulated videos to ward users away.
  • Sam Gregory, a deepfakes expert at human-rights nonprofit WITNESS, says firms should thoroughly explain how they treat individual videos and why — and coordinate between themselves to quickly halt the spread of a manipulated video.

What they're doing: Axios attended a content moderation meeting last month at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, where the company began considering rules to reduce or even take down manipulated media that is presented as true.

For now, when bad information starts to spread, platforms generally reduce its reach and/or add fact checks from outside organizations.

  • Facebook solicits outside evaluations so that it doesn't have to pass judgment itself — but the checking process is slow, and partner organizations don't always have the expertise to evaluate manipulated video. Once a video is determined to be falsified, it's shown less often on Facebook.
  • Twitter tries to bury fake videos and other "untrusted" content way down in users' timelines, so that they have to scroll past countless other tweets to get to them. But if someone links directly to an offending tweet, it can still be seen.
  • YouTube is the outlier — it bans some forms of trickery, including misleadingly edited videos, a spokesperson tells Axios.

What's next: Platforms and outside researchers are racing to create technology that can detect deepfakes and authenticate non-edited videos.

Go deeper: The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes

Go deeper

Updated 24 mins ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

🚨: Team USA closes out Day 1 with no medals for 1st time since 1972

📺: The Olympic events to watch today

🛹: Athlete spotlight - Nyjah Huston hopes to skate his way into Olympic history

🇺🇸: After loss to Sweden, U.S. women's soccer team overwhelms New Zealand

🥇: The six new sports at Tokyo 2020

👻: How the no-spectator Olympics could affect the athletes

💉 About 100 U.S. Olympic athletes are unvaccinated

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

1 hour ago - Sports

Jill Biden cheers on Team USA at Tokyo Olympics

Jill Biden congratulates U.S. women 3x3 basketball team after the first round 3x3 basketball match. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

First lady Jill Biden attended three Olympic events on Saturday and hosted a watch party at the U.S. Embassy for the Team USA-Mexico softball game.

Driving the news: On her first day as a spectator at the Games, Biden attended a women's 3x3 basketball game, cheered on American swimmers during preliminary heats and caught the second half of the U.S. women's soccer game against New Zealand.

1 hour ago - Sports

Team USA closes out Day 1 of Summer Olympics with no medals

Eli Dershwitz of Team United States reacts in his men’s sabre individual bout against Junghwan Kim of Korea of the fencing on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: Elsa / Getty Images

Team USA concluded the first official day of competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday without winning a single medal despite several close contests.

Why it matters: Olympic historian Bill Mallon noted that this was the first time the United States did not receive any medals on Day 1 of the Summer Olympics since Munich in 1972.