For the last couple of years, I've pretty much ignored the whole Hunter Biden laptop story. That's because I don't really care much about what private citizen Hunter did/didn't do. But now that Elon Musk owns Twitter and Republicans gained a majority in the House, it is clear we're going to be hearing about the president's son nonstop. So I decided that it was finally time to get some information to debunk the lies that are spreading like wildfire.
When it comes to the ridiculous "expose" from Musk and his buddy Matt Taibbi, I'll simply note that the only way they've shown that Joe Biden intervened on Twitter was to provide examples of his campaign asking the site to review pornographic tweets. That's it. Perhaps the best response to that one came from Tim Miller in an article titled "No, You Do Not Have a Constitutional Right to Post Hunter Biden’s Dick Pic on Twitter." Here's my favorite line from that one:
Why MAGA Republicans and Elon Musk are so adamant that people be able to post photos of Hunter’s johnson is something that should probably be explored with their respective preachers or psychiatrists, but it is certainly not a matter for constitutional scholars or litigators.
But Taibbi also included a few emails of discussions at Twitter about their decision to ban references to New York Post stories about Hunter Biden's laptop. A lot of people are saying that the social media site made a mistake in doing so. I would suggest that it is important to look at the context in which they made that decision - something that Philip Bump did last March. Here's a timeline that helps do that:
May 2017: In addition to their efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, Russian intelligence hacked Emmanuel Macron's campaign and leaked data - as well as fake information - to social media sites 36 hours before the French election. This mixing of hacked data with fake information is worth noting.
Nov. 2019 - Russian intelligence hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian company that had hired Hunter Biden.
Oct. 2019 - U.S. intelligence warned Trump that Rudy Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence. In attempting to dig up dirt on the Biden's, the president's lawyer had several meetings with Andrii Derkach (a Ukrainian legislator), who was sanctioned as a Russian agent.
December 19, 2019 - the FBI receives Hunter Biden's laptop based on a subpoena. All subsequent news reports are based on copies of the hard drive.
Aug. 2020 - Guiliani is in possession of material from the hard drive of the laptop. He shops it around to news outlets, all of whom passed on it - even Fox News. After the New York Post took it, Giuliani said, "nobody else wanted to take it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it [ie, vet the material] before they put it out." Multiple reporters at the New York Post turned the story down too.
Oct. 11, 2020 - New York Post gets the material and publishes their first story three days later on Oct. 14. One of the two reporters whose names appeared on the byline didn’t realize she would be included as a coauthor until after the stories ran. When other news outlets asked to review the material on which the story was based, the New York Post refused to share it with them.
Oct. 20, 2020 - Fifty national security experts, who had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, signed on to a statement that included this:
[T]he arrival on the US political scene of emails purportedly belonging to Vice President Biden’s son Hunter, much of it related to his time serving on the Board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.
We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement -- just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.
That is the context in which Twitter made the decision to block the spread of the New York Post story. In hindsight, did they do the right thing? A couple of pieces of information that have surfaced since then validate that, at minimum, they were right to be skeptical of the story.
First of all, last spring the Washington Post finally got a copy of the material from the hard drive in order to analyze its authenticity.
We had multiple experts examine the contents of a hard drive that purported to contain the laptop’s contents, validating tens of thousands of emails as likely to be legitimate. But an enormous amount of the material on the drive couldn’t be validated as legitimate, in part because of the game of telephone that the material had undergone by the time it reached us...
“The experts found the data had been repeatedly accessed and copied by people other than Hunter Biden over nearly three years,” our report explained, with those we spoke with being unable to “reach definitive conclusions about the contents as a whole, including whether all of it originated from a single computer or could have been assembled from files from multiple computers and put on the portable drive.”
Secondly, last April Philip Bump found this from an interview with the owner of the computer repair shop - John Paul Mac Isaac - who gave Giuliani a copy of the material on the hard drive.
"I do know that there have been multiple attempts over the past year-and-a-half to insert questionable material into the laptop as in, not physically, but passing off this misinformation or disinformation as coming from the laptop,” [Mac Issac] said. “And that is a major concern of mine because I have fought tooth and nail to protect the integrity of this drive and to jeopardize that is going to mean that everything that I sacrificed will be for nothing.”
In other words, Mac Isaac says that he has seen claims about what the laptop contains that don’t actually reflect what he saw on the laptop at the outset.
So Twitter - as well as everyone from Fox News to a few reporters at the New York Post - were right to be skeptical about the Hunter Biden laptop story. Two years later, that skepticism is still warranted. Those are the facts.
I'll just add that the stakes of getting this kind of thing right are enormous. A few years ago, Peter Pomerantsev wrote about how Vladimir Putin was taking propaganda to a whole new level. The line that stuck with me was, "This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible." I thought of that when I heard Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa explain how all of that is connected to the threats being posed to democracy.
Here's her formula: Facts + Truth = Trust. Without those elements, we have no shared reality and democracy is imperiled. When people like Elon Musk use claims of "free speech" to spread lies, he doing what Ressa suggested: using free speech to stifle free speech.