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Another Hyped “Hunter Biden Laptop” Reveal Flops
Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi said the "Twitter Files" would show a political scandal, but the information itself did the opposite
It was hyped as a big revelation, proof of a political conspiracy. Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk gave journalist Matt Taibbi access to some of Twitter’s internal communications from before he took over, saying they would show “what really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression,” referring to an October 2020 New York Post article about a laptop allegedly belonging to then presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son. Musk promised it’d be “awesome.” Conservative media figures, Elon Musk fans, and Biden opponents were excited.
In advance of the release, MIT computer scientist and Musk booster Lex Fridman called it “historic,” and claimed it will “strengthen our democracy” because “transparency helps keep people honest and minimize undue influence from politics and money.”
Selectively releasing internal information without external oversight is not transparency, especially not when attempting to support a preconceived narrative. The public knows this is a fraction of Twitter’s internal documentation, but doesn’t know what they chose to hold back, and for what purpose. Taibbi said he “had to agree to certain conditions” to review what Musk showed him, but didn’t say what those were.
The release was a marketing gimmick. The inaccurate claim of transparency is another.
But that doesn’t mean the information is devoid of value. No one who appears in the released communications is disputing their accuracy, so with proper caveats, we can learn things from them.
Anyone looking for more insight into how Twitter, and social media companies in general, deal with content moderation might learn something. Anyone looking for proof of a political conspiracy will find that even this information, selectively released by people trying to make it look like a big scandal, showed that it wasn’t.
The Big Hunter Biden Reveal
There were two revelations regarding Hunter Biden. The most relevant one is “no evidence” of “any government involvement in the laptop story.” Taibbi found that federal law enforcement had contacted Twitter months before the New York Post article with a “general” warning about “possible foreign hacks,” but nothing about Hunter Biden, let alone a specific story. Those nonspecific keep-an-eye-out warnings have been standard procedure for years, and issued to many companies—Facebook got one too—especially after North Korea hacked Sony in 2014 and Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
That’s right, the big reveal blindly hyped as evidence of a political scandal showed the opposite. Released communications feature senior Twitter officials—including then Head of Legal, Policy, and Trust Vijaya Gadde, and Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker—disagreeing about what to do and ultimately making a judgment call to block the Post story due to suspicion it contained hacked materials, a violation of established policy. Taibbi has been trying to spin Twitter and Facebook’s reactions to that Hunter Biden laptop story as a political scandal for more than two years. If there was even a hint of evidence implying government officials were involved, he would’ve highlighted it.
The other Hunter Biden revelation in the “Twitter Files” is that someone from the Biden campaign spotted naked pictures of Hunter and asked Twitter to take them down. And Twitter did.
When Taibbi posted evidence of that, Elon Musk rhetorically asked “if this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” Following up, he explained that “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.”
In 2020, Joe Biden and his campaign officials didn’t hold government positions, so there’s no possible First Amendment violation. No one “ordered” Twitter to do anything. And even if Trump administration officials had been the ones to flag the photos, posting unauthorized pictures of someone else’s genitalia is clearly against Twitter policies. According to Taibbi, Twitter occasionally gets and acts on requests like this from both Democrats and Republicans.
Biden having someone flag unauthorized naked photos of his struggling-with-addiction son makes him sound more like a concerned parent than a government authoritarian, especially since Biden wasn’t in government, didn’t make any threats, and the request just asked Twitter to follow its own rules. And since Hunter didn’t post the photos himself, this does nothing to undermine the suspicion that material about him appearing on Twitter may have been illicitly acquired.
Suspecting that the “Hunter Biden laptop” may have contained hacked material was reasonable in October 2020 when the story broke, and still is.
Earlier that year, cybersecurity researchers reported that Russian military intelligence had hacked Burisma, a Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden had worked. The laptop story came to the New York Post via Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, who had spent months trying to drum up dirt on the Bidens via Ukraine. That effort, which ultimately involved then-President Trump withholding legally-allocated military aid to extort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into manufacturing an investigation of the Bidens, prompted Trump’s first impeachment. Additionally, U.S. counterintelligence had warned the White House that Russian intelligence targeted Giuliani, trying to use him, with or without his knowledge, as a conduit for misinformation.
So a known target of a Russian influence operation is shopping around a story about a known target of Russian hacking, and his story of the laptop’s chain of custody has holes. This doesn’t prove the laptop held some information Russia hacked—it’s never been proven or disproven—but it does raise suspicion. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and other media outlets passed on the story, because they investigated and couldn’t verify it. That too doesn’t disprove it, but it shows that both mainstream and conservative media outlets were suspicious.
Multiple New York Post reporters turned it down too, for the same reason. The Post eventually ran it under the bylines of Gabrielle Fonrouge and Emma-Jo Morris. Fonrouge, a Post reporter since 2014, had little to do with the story and learned her name was on it only after it was published. Morris, who previously worked as an associate producer for Sean Hannity at Fox, was the Post’s deputy politics editor and it was her first byline. She wrote eleven New York Post stories, all but one of which are about Hunter Biden, and is now politics editor at Breitbart.
With all that, Twitter decided to treat the Post story as a potential violation of its hacked material policy, going so far as to prevent anyone from posting it. That’s fully within Twitter’s First Amendment rights, but I think it went too far. Big tech companies aren’t the government, but do exercise a degree of government-like control over swaths of public communication, and I don’t like the idea of Silicon Valley executives deciding which stories published by established media organizations users can share. Allowing people to post it but adding a warning label about the suspicion would’ve threaded the needle, with Twitter not complicit in laundering and disseminating potentially hacked material, and users not stopped from sharing a published piece.
Perhaps you disagree. But whatever your opinion about Twitter’s actions, we’re now in the weeds of content moderation judgment calls, a far cry from the alleged political conspiracies, let alone a First Amendment violation.
No subsequent information has changed that. Various media outlets have tried to verify all the alleged contents, and none have. For example, Washington Post investigators reviewed a copy of the laptop’s harddrive provided by Republican activist Jack Maxey and confirmed that some emails were really Hunter’s, but said “the vast majority of the data — and most of the nearly 129,000 emails it contained — could not be verified.” This doesn’t prove the info is fake either, it means we don’t know.
Verifying some does not verify all. And verifying any doesn’t address suspicion that the info was hacked.
The Hunter Fixation
Suspicion was reasonable, and Twitter reacting to that suspicion with internal debates focused on hacked material rules, not partisan politics, is a good thing. Matt Taibbi’s account of Twitter’s internal communications shows no government involvement, no pressure from the Biden campaign on any Hunter Biden content except nude photos, and senior Twitter officials disagreeing about what to do. No conspiracy.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for people fixated on Hunter to accept that. They’re too invested in their narrative of Biden’s son—who, unlike Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, doesn’t work in his father’s administration or have any apparent influence over American policy—and too committed to feeling like aggrieved victims, to let a little thing like contrary evidence get in the way.