When former Vice President Joe Biden said last week that he didn’t remember “any complaint ever having been made” by former staffer Tara Reade, in his first public remarks responding to her accusation that he sexually assaulted her in 1993, a hair stylist from New Jersey sought to remind him.
“Joe Biden says he can’t remember Tara Reade,” Twitter user @prettyjanice888 wrote roughly 12 hours after Biden’s interview. “Perhaps this will help to refresh his memory.
The photo attached to the tweet showed a younger, early-nineties-era Biden gently touching the sleeve of a woman—purportedly Reade. The image was subsequently shared more than 14,000 times, and disseminated by countless other Twitter accounts claiming that the photo bolsters Reade’s case against the former vice president.
“Biden can’t remember Tara Reade but he’s posing in a photo with her,” another tweet reads, accompanying the same photo. “HOPE THIS PICTURE HELPS BIDEN REMEMBER!” reads another. “Joe Biden pictured with Tara Reade, the staffer he doesn’t remember… C’mon Dems, explain this.”
But the woman in the photo is definitely, without a doubt, not Reade.
The image and its imitators have exploited Twitter’s notoriously lax approach to disinformation on the platform, as well as a loophole in policies instituted earlier this year that allow users to report political misinformation. That loophole means that the while scores of users who have identified the image as false and attempted to report is as “misleading about a political election,” the tweet and its imitators do not, apparently, violate any of the site’s rules.
Despite Twitter’s long track record of being susceptible to abuse by bad-faith state actors and rogue conspiracy theorists, the options for reporting a tweet for political misinformation are surprisingly narrow: “It has false information about where or how to vote or register to vote;” “It intends to suppress or intimidate someone from voting;” “It is misrepresenting its affiliation with or impersonating a candidate, elected official, political party, or government entity.”
Other rules against “manipulated photos or videos” are limited to “synthetic or manipulated” media—like deepfakes or videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which she is artificially slowed down to seem drunk—do not include authentic photographs or videos that are misrepresented by accompanying text.
In the case of the viral tweet of Biden and “Reade,” there is zero room for confusion about the actual identity of the woman in the photograph. Taken by Associated Press photographer Ron Edmonds, the shot does depict then-Sen. Biden in January 1993—but standing alongside President Bill Clinton’s first nominee to run the Justice Department, not his own former staff assistant.
“Attorney General-designate Zoe Baird meets with Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington,” the photo’s caption reads. “Biden will chair the committee during Baird’s confirmation hearings.”
In response to requests for comment about whether the tweet and its imitators violated the site’s rules against political misinformation, a Twitter spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the tweet “is not currently in violation of the Twitter Rules.” According to Twitter, corrections by other users—none of which have the reach of the 14,000-retweet post—are the most effective way of preventing disinformation from spreading on the platform.
Despite Twitter’s “let the rabble police itself” approach to disinformation, the platform has emphasized the importance of correcting the mistakes of 2016, when the Kremlin activated an army of Twitter trolls targeting American voters with fake news in the hopes of interfering with the presidential election. Popular users and accounts on the site were shown to be part of a vast network of bots and trolls under the control of Russian intelligence, interacting with nearly 700,000 American users before the election.
“As caucuses and primaries for the presidential election get underway, we’re building on our efforts to protect the public conversation,” Carlos Monje Jr., Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy, said in January, when the site rolled out the reporting tools for potential voter suppression.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on the tweet, but the former vice president has previously warned about political disinformation on social media as a threat to the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.
“You’re going to see a lot more of not only my statements being taken out of context and lied about or altered, you’re going to see whomever the Democratic nominee is, because that’s how this guy operates,” Biden said in January, one day after the appearance of a viral video that had been edited to make it appear that he had made racist remarks.
Biden is not alone in having old—and incorrect—photos weaponized on Twitter to discredit him. Reade herself has been targeted, with some users taking a screengrab from an undated episode of Dr. Phil of a woman who appeared on the show, claiming that Reade told the show that Russian president Vladimir Putin is in love with her.
The original user, who appears from other social media posts to be a hairstylist in New Jersey, has refused to engage with critics who have pointed out that the photograph of Baird is inaccurate. The account has tweeted the same image at least seven times with a nearly identical caption, tagging the handles of prominent conservatives including Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, Sean Hannity, and Trump campaign operative Benny Johnson.
The owner of the account, who has also repeatedly shared animated GIFs of President Donald Trump riding a cartoon tank and photoshopped images of a dog defecating Rep. Adam Schiff’s head, did not respond to requests for comment.
– Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting to this article