Clippers Cut a Wide Swath Making Political Campaign Videos Go Viral

When Andrew Lawrence begins his night shift, he powers on his monitor to sift through Fox News’ evening programming.

He and his small team at Media Matters for America, the liberal nonprofit media watchdog group, spend hours each day glued to their screens, scanning cable shows, livestreams and congressional hearings for political moments they can clip, post on social media and call out as absurd.

“We watch Fox News so you don’t have to,” Mr. Lawrence said.

The slog seems to be paying off. His video posts are often viewed millions of times.

Clipping political gaffes was once more of a pastime for amateur political obsessives. Now, professionals have stepped in and supercharged the political discourse, flooding platforms like X and TikTok with cuttingly captioned video snippets, often publishing edited clips within minutes or even seconds.

Despite concerns that the most-watched clips often omit crucial context, sometimes by design, clippers have amassed tens of millions of views, forcing candidates to pay attention — and to watch their words.

More so than ever before, clipping has been embraced by both official Democratic and Republican campaign committees that have exploited the reach of real-time clips and even outdone their independent predecessors.

Gone is the heyday of the tracker, a political operative who would tail candidates at stump events big and small, camcorder in hand, hoping to catch gaffes on tape. Today, the ubiquity of livestreaming and video recording has transformed any rallygoer with a smartphone into a wellspring of videos clippers can turn into potential viral sensations. With so much of a campaign being captured on video and then quickly spotlighted in microscopic, mocking detail, the smallest personality foible, momentary lapse or passing awkwardness can spell a public-relations nightmare for a candidate.

Curtis Houck, an editor of the conservative blog NewsBusters, which says its mission is to call out liberal media bias, clips and analyzes White House news briefings. He said that on his X account alone he had racked up about 150 million impressions since he started clipping during the 2016 presidential campaign.

On both sides of the partisan divide, clippers contend that they are backstopping for news organizations that fail to do their jobs impartially. “There’s just a few merry band of us holding the media accountable, real-time, to show presidential speeches and remarks where the president veers off,” Mr. Houck said of his team of media analysts who scan TV shows and news briefings for material.

Then again, clippers often strip their video posts of the context that journalists are generally trained to supply.

That is often the case with @RNCResearch, an official X account of the Trump campaign and the Republican Party that has netted millions of views since its creation in 2009. The team behind the account, with a snarky, trollish campaign voice, posts several times an hour with clips and memes that often highlight what it casts as senior moments in President Biden’s public appearances.

Fact-checkers have repeatedly flagged that @RNCResearch posts misleading content. When Mr. Biden visited Italy for the Group of 7 summit last week, for example, the account posted a 31-second clip of the president appearing to wander away from a group of leaders, seemingly unaware, with the caption, “WHAT IS BIDEN DOING?”

The post did not mention that the summit’s attendees had just watched a skydiving demonstration and that Mr. Biden was walking toward a skydiver who was briefly in the frame. It nonetheless garnered 3.5 million views, prompting a flurry of news coverage focusing on Mr. Biden’s age.

Former President Donald J. Trump has referred to the clip, among many others posted by @RNCResearch, at several rallies. In Racine, Wis., on Tuesday, he said Mr. Biden “looked like he didn’t know where the hell he was.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said the videos were “done in bad faith” and called them “manipulated.”

Tommy Pigott, an R.N.C. spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment, but wrote on X on Wednesday that @RNCResearch posts were “unedited, unfiltered, accurate clips” sourced from publicly available videos.

Mr. Trump, too, has complained that social media accounts have taken his words out of context.

In March, @BidenHQ, the Democratic Party’s answer to accounts like @RNCResearch, posted a clip of Mr. Trump with voters in Dayton, Ohio, saying that “it’s going to be a blood bath for the country” if he is not elected. Mr. Trump said he was taken out of context, saying he was warning only about the economic effects on the auto industry.

MeidasTouch, which calls itself a pro-democracy outlet and opposes Mr. Trump, also posted the brief “blood bath” clip. Ron Filipkowski, a former Florida criminal defense lawyer, now runs the MeidasTouch news platform after clipping political videos on his personal Twitter account for years.

He described clips as a new form of political currency. “These things were like dropping a burning ember in a dry forest,” Mr. Filipkowski said of videos that go viral. “Four hours later, it’s a pretty big blaze.”

Another left-leaning clipper, Aaron Rupar, a progressive journalist who started turning out videos in 2017, said that a successful clip provided a “dopamine hit” similar to when a reporter lands a scoop.

In previous election cycles, Mr. Filipkowski said, campaigns and independent fact-checkers would take half a day or more to correct false statements or capitalize on missteps. Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, recalled waiting for several campaign workers to check and sign off on any response, a painstaking process.

Now, clippers competing to be the first to post barely hesitate.

“We’ve always heard the phrase ‘rapid response,’” Mr. Heye said. “But this is turning things into almost real-time response.”

Mr. Biden’s digital team struck an empathetic, serious tone during the 2020 election, ignoring memes and attacks from social media accounts on the right that were willing to duke it out. But Mr. Filipkowski, who began clipping in 2020 as an anti-Trump Republican, said that the Democrats’ messaging was lagging behind.

“Right-wingers have been clipping Democrats, clipping Biden, with deceptive posts,” Mr. Filipkowski said of the strategy the Biden campaign had used until recently. “Why aren’t the Democrats doing this to Trump?”

Democrats are hardly asleep at the switch.

Parker Butler, the Biden campaign’s digital rapid response director, said that the @BidenHQ account — which has since collected nearly two billion impressions — aimed to track Mr. Trump 24/7.

“Our team watches every moment of Donald Trump’s every move,” Mr. Butler said in a statement, adding that the account hoped to spotlight “Trump’s extreme, losing agenda straight from his own mouth.”

With practice, clippers say they have developed an instinct for which political moments are most likely to go viral, though their output suggests they are also playing a numbers game: Surely, at least one clip among dozens from a given event will rise to the top of the feed.

And they clearly are keeping a keen eye on their counterparts across the aisle.

“They’ve accused me of cutting clips where I am editing out the quote-unquote context,” Mr. Filipkowski said of his Republican critics. “But they still follow me!”

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