The source behind The New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop is currently trying to sue Twitter for defamation, claiming it's content moderation choices falsely branded him a “hacker,” according to a new report published by The Verge.
During the 2020 election, the Post published a dubious exposé centered around John Paul Mac Isaac, a Delaware computer repair shop owner who alleged to have discovered emails and pictures from the son of Joe Biden, the former Vice President and Democratic nominee at the time. As President Donald Trump grew desperate for an “October surprise” in his fight for the White House, the report attempted to provide a hail Mary similar to the 2016 Comey letter used during the email scandal of his former rival Hillary Clinton, a revelation which halved her polling lead across crucial swing states. As journalists dug deeper, this October distraction just screamed propaganda.
Attempts to get to the bottom of the more inflammatory claims made in the Post’s story were made by numerous media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, who simply couldn’t verify the story’s authenticity.
“There is no header information, no metadata. That makes it harder to analyze and verify the files.” wrote Thomas Rid, an expert in national security. “It is also an old Cold War disinformation tactic to pass information, especially but not exclusively when forged, to low-brow newspapers that have high circulation and low standards of investigation. Ideal for surfacing and amplification.”
As the sources and material became disputable, social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter both decided to restrict the article’s reach to varying degrees, the most infamous being Twitter for outright banning the article for “posting hacked materials,” according to warning messages the site provided when users tried to link to the story. It’s for this reason that Mac Isaac claims that Twitter specifically made a decision to “communicate to the world that [Mac Isaac] is a hacker,” claiming his business began to receive threats and negative reviews after Twitter’s moderation decision. And as we look into the lawsuit claims, let’s remember the characters at play.
What did Mac Isaac do exactly? What could cause such a bold assertion to harm his career and reputation? Well, according to the original article, the repair shop owner found a water-damaged laptop marked with a “Beau Biden Foundation” sticker, which he claims was never recovered from the store. In violation of his customer’s privacy, controlled by his own curiosity and the apparent values of ‘finders keepers,’ Mac Isaac searched through the laptop looking for all sorts of personal data. As it turns out, this cyber-creeping investigation led to the Biden family, and Mac Isaac decided to make his own personal copies of the computer’s contents onto a hard drive. This is all before he contacted the authorities in December 2019, when the laptop was reportedly seized by the FBI.
As the months proceeded, Mac Isaac randomly decided to give his personal copies to Robert Costello, the personal lawyer of Rudy Giuliani. Operating as President Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani held onto the information until it became a convenient political surprise in October, causing the media to question whether this “smoking gun” bombshell was actually just smoke and mirrors conducted through unethical means. Does this make Mac Isaac a hacker? For Twitter, these acts are loosely defined as “obtaining documents without authorization,” according to the Verge. This is flawed compared to the Oxford definition of “a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data,” which ironically appears to be closer to what actually happened in this case.
Keep in mind, Twitter’s message was levied directly against The New York Post, not their original source who claims he was implicated in the process. The complaint, however, cites multiple examples of how reviews using the same label negatively impacted his business, which could potentially convince the judge of harm to his business. But still, why should Twitter be held liable for those reviews? Is there proof Twitter influenced their words? After all, the ban only lasted a single day as Twitter later declared the story didn’t violate its “hacked materials” section, according to the “rapid series of policy shifts” following the events of the story. From this, is Mac Isaac right for demanding over $500 million and a public retraction? Even when retractions have already been published despite Mac Isaac potentially fitting that definition after all?
It’s also very unlikely the repairman will make it past Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial big tech provision heavily criticized by both sides of Capitol Hill. Passed in 1996 during the dawn of the internet, the law protects any “interactive computer service” from being treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content, such as when users violate copyright, provide sex-work and violate federal criminal law. It’d be an even harder argument to hold Twitter accountable for actions outside its platform.“Section 230 has developed a lot of case law and I would guess you could probably fashion an argument that they are protected,” argued Charles Babcock, a Houston lawyer who successfully defended Oprah Winfrey against libel allegations, who spoke with The Post earlier this week.
It’s just a matter of whether Twitter’s decision to walk back the ban and the label that may bite them in the ass. Although Mac Isaac may have trouble convincing a court that his decision to close his business was “a direct result” of Twitter, it’s easier to make the case that Twitter made “false statements". Still, more than 50 former intelligence officials signed a letter in October saying the Post’s story had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation,” although these critiques have not been corroborated.
As it stands, however, Mac Isaac’s case isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Shortly after it was filed, the lawsuit was summarily dismissed by Judge Beth Bloom, ruling in a Miami federal court that “the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction” because Mac Isaac is a citizen of Delaware and Twitter is incorporated there. Mac Isaac, on the other hand, argued Twitter’s initial “actions and statements had the specific intent to communicate to the world that Plaintiff is a hacker,” leading Bloom to respond: “The sole basis for subject matter jurisdiction is diversity of citizenship. Thus, accepting the Complaint’s allegations as true, the Complaint fails to allege complete diversity.” Still, Bloom issued her order without prejudice, meaning the suit could potentially be refiled in the future.