Fact check: Presidential seal blurred in Biden's personal videos due to federal law
The claim: The presidential seal is blurred in videos of Joe Biden because he's not the real president
President Joe Biden signed a sweeping bipartisan package Nov. 15 that provides $1.2 trillion to improve nearly every facet of American infrastructure. But on social media, some say he didn't have the authority to do so.
A video published Nov. 15 on Facebook shows Biden on a stage alongside Vice President Kamala Harris. In the foreground, the presidential seal on the podium is blurry.
"Why is the Presidential seal blurred out?" the video's caption says. "Humm....Brandon is NOT President!!"
The post, which uses a pejorative nickname for Biden, shows the president giving remarks at the White House the week before passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It didn't get much traction, but similar claims have accumulated thousands of interactions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the past week, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Some posts point to videos with the blurred seal as evidence that Biden is an "installed official."
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As other independent fact-checking organizations have noted, those claims are wrong – Biden is the president. The presidential seal is blurred in some of his videos on social media because of how a federal statute governs its use in promotional materials.
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"Joe Biden is, in fact, the real president of the United States – and there is not some secret code in anything that you will ever see on Facebook that will tell you otherwise," Jordan Libowitz, communications director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, told USA TODAY.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the claim for comment.
Seal only blurred on non-official accounts
A federal law from the 1960s is behind the blurred presidential and vice-presidential seals in videos from Biden and Harris' non-official social media accounts.
Emphasis on the word "non-official."
Several videos posted to the personal Twitter accounts for Biden and Harris (@JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris) feature blurred seals. The same is true for videos posted to Facebook and Instagram.
But similar videos published by Biden and Harris' government-run accounts (@POTUS and @VP) on the same platforms do not feature the blurring.
"The videos referenced (in the posts) were from President Biden's personal accounts, not the office POTUS accounts," Meghan Lee-Parker, an archivist at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, said in an email. "Leaving them unblurred on personal accounts would constitute a violation of federal law as the use of the seal could be seen as advertising or campaigning."
In 1966, Congress passed a law to place restrictions on the display of the Great Seal of the United States. The statute was later amended to also prohibit the use of the presidential and vice-presidential seals in a way that could give "a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the government of the United States."
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In a 1972 executive order, Nixon issued regulations provided for in the law to permit the "manufacture, reproduction, sale or purchase for resale" of the seals by the president and vice president, as well as to allow for their "photographic or electronic visual reproduction" in "bona fide news content."
As it's currently written, the law "would require an intent to mislead on the part of the president or vice president," according to Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University (and former editor in chief of USA TODAY). He said in an email that blurring the seals in videos from Biden and Harris' personal accounts "feels like an abundance of caution" since they are, in fact, president and vice president.
But Libowitz said politicians and political parties do it anyway to avoid potential legal problems. Some videos from now-former President Donald Trump's personal social media accounts also featured a blurred presidential seal during his time in office.
"People from both parties have always tried to stay on the right side of the statute," Libowitz said. "So when you see the blurring of the seal, it's meant to keep from blurring the lines between official action and political action."
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Businesses have run up against the statute in the past.
In 2005, the Bush administration asked The Onion, a satirical news website, to remove the presidential seal from a parody of the president's weekly radio address. And in 2018, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Justice Department after the Trump Organization ordered a set of golf tee markers sporting the presidential seal. The company later removed them and said the markers were given to one of Trump's golf courses by members.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the presidential seal is blurred in videos of Biden because he's not the real president. The seal is blurred in videos from Biden and Harris' personal social media accounts due to a federal law that prohibits its use in a way that could give "a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the government of the United States." The seal is not blurred in videos from the president and vice president's government-run accounts. Biden won the 2020 election and is the U.S. president.
Our fact-check sources:
USA TODAY, Nov. 15, 'We're finally getting this done': Biden signs landmark infrastructure package in major win for domestic agenda
USA TODAY, Nov. 1, What does ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ mean? Everything you need to know about the Joe Biden insult
CrowdTangle, accessed Nov. 17-18
USA TODAY, Dec. 15, Fact check: Joe Biden legally won presidential election, despite persistent contrary claims
Jordan Libowitz, Nov. 18, Phone interview with USA TODAY
The American Presidency Project, accessed Nov. 17-18, Executive Order 11649—Regulations Governing the Seals of the President and the Vice President of the United States
Cornell Legal Information Institute, accessed Nov. 17-18, 18 U.S. Code § 713
Meghan Lee-Parker, Nov. 18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Govinfo.gov, accessed Nov. 18
Joe Biden, Nov. 6, Tweet
Joe Biden, Oct. 31, Tweet
Kamala Harris, Nov. 16, Tweet
Kamala Harris, Nov. 16, Tweet
President Biden, Nov. 16, Tweet
President Biden, Nov. 16, Tweet
Vice President Kamala Harris, Nov. 14, Tweet
Vice President Kamala Harris, Nov. 4, Tweet
Vice President Kamala Harris, Nov. 14, Facebook video
President Joe Biden, Nov. 16, Instagram post
Joe Biden, Nov. 6, Facebook video
Kamala Harris, Nov. 16, Facebook video
Daniel Wessel, Nov. 18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Ken Paulson, Nov. 17-18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Donald J. Trump, Sept. 7, 2018, Facebook video
Associated Press, Nov. 17, Social media posts misrepresent reason for blurred presidential seal
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, March 23, 2018, CREW files DOJ complaint on Trump Organization using Presidential Seal
ProPublica, March 5, 2018, ‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast Extra: The Trump Organization Ordered Golf Course Markers With the Presidential Seal. That May Be Illegal.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, July 16, Trump Organization improperly uses presidential seal at Trump property. Again.
The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2005, Protecting the Presidential Seal. No Joke.
The White House, Nov. 6, Remarks by President Biden on Passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal
The Daily News Journal, April 23, 2013, Ex-USA TODAY editor named dean at Middle Tenn. State
The Democrats, Nov. 16, Tweet
Associated Press, March 6, 2018, Trump Org: Presidential seals at golf club came from members
Shayan Sardarizadeh, Nov. 17, Tweet
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Why the presidential seal is blurred in some Biden videos