It’s no secret that President Donald Trump wants an “October surprise” in his fight against former Vice President Joe Biden. After all, it was the hail Mary of 2016’s Comey letter pertaining to the Hillary Clinton email scandal which halved her polling lead across crucial swing states, arguably edging the unpopular Republican candidate across the electoral finish line. Last week, the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to answer these prayers by providing alleged emails and photos from Hunter Biden’s personal laptop to The New York Post. The only catch is that social media isn’t playing along in spreading their questionable narrative.
For starters, the original story seems quite ludicrous. To put it simply, a hard drive was obtained by an unidentified man who worked for a Delaware computer repair shop. This anonymous source alleges that a water-damaged laptop marked with a “Beau Biden Foundation” sticker was never reclaimed from the store. In violation of customer privacy, this cyber-creep owner began searching through the laptop owner’s personal data only to discover it belonged to the Vice President’s son. The Post presented the story as confirming the claim that the Vice President’s son attempted to schedule a meeting to leverage favors between his father and his executive bosses for the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
This is primarily based on two emails from April 17, 2015 and May 13, 2017, suggesting that Hunter arranged for both a meeting between the Ukrainian executives and the former vice president during his time in the White House, as well as organized the family shares in a separate deal with a Chinese energy firm.
“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” reads the April 17 email, supposedly written by Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma.
The May 13 email meanwhile suggests a proposed equity split in an unidentified business venture which details “20 for “H” and “10 held by H for the big guy?” According to an anonymous source who spoke to Fox News, “the big guy” is supposed to refer to Joe Biden.
When authorities became aware of the laptop back in December 2019 it was reportedly seized from the shop keeper, however not before he reportedly made personal copies of the computer’s hard drive contents, which were somehow given to Robert Costello, Giuliani’s personal lawyer based in New York. This information was then held under wraps by Giuliani for over 10 months until it’d become a convenient political tool in… October! Surprise! The whole thing just smelled fishy, causing the media to begin questioning whether this “smoking gun” bombshell was actually just smoke and mirrors linked to a disinformation campaign led by foreign entities, as claimed by the FBI who are currently preparing their own investigation.
Keep in mind, a report from January 13, 2020 found that Burisma was hacked by a military unit known as the G.R.U. and private researchers known by the alias of “Fancy Bear,” the exact same Russian institutions which were involved in the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee. Silicon Valley already had months to prepare for such information becoming a public interest and decided that once the shit hit the fan to limit the story before it was even verified as false information. Facebook opted to reduce the post’s reach while saying it was still eligible for fact-checking by the platform’s own third-party partners, whereas Twitter outright banned users from posting or retweeting links to the story, citing their policy against transferring hacked information.
This “censorship” has been widely criticized on multiple grounds regarding freedom of speech, the public interest, undue punishment for sharing a mainstream article, monopolistic abuse of power by privatized tech platforms, the ability for propaganda to freely spread across the internet, you name it. The decisions cast a worrying precedent over how these platforms can function in a time where freedom of the press seems to be at odds with the increasing prevalence of propaganda ops.
Should we rely on the good faith of Facebook and Twitter to decide all this based on such unilateral corporate powers? Especially when most of their TOS standards are about as legally binding as crayon on paper? Given that these platforms continue to grow in size and do function as necessary tools for communication, these scary questions need to be resolved, especially as journalists also require these freedoms to debunk baseless smear campaigns.
Remember, just because these platforms censor a story doesn’t mean it goes away, nor does it discredit the liars behind it. In fact, it’s arguably because of these foolish decisions that the relevancy of the article has overtaken its original substance (or should I say lack thereof), indirectly causing a Streisand effect that actually doubled the story’s reach and further legitimized the overall Trump narrative of supposed “liberal bias” protecting Biden and the Democratic party. Never mind the numerous reporting on Big Tech’s bipartisan censorship of human rights activists and even factual “left-wing” articles, but I digress. If there was solid evidence, even the most pervasive of tech censorship wouldn’t be enough to keep it from sticking. On face value, it plays perfectly into the 2016 strategy of the President and his conspiracy crowds, merely adding to the false claims that it was the Bidens who pressured the Ukrainian government into firing its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, for investigating Burisma.
The only problem is that unlike the corporate libertarian landscape of 2016, Republican operators don't have the consistent backing of the establishment to craft their narrative, be it the complicit institutions in tech, media or even their own political party. It should be routinely noted that were already two Republican-led Senate committee investigations into the Burisma matter and even they found there was no evidence of wrongdoing committed by the former vice president and his son. As months passed, nothing came of the accusations, until the New York Post story late last week, which journalists found was crafted through either unreputable reporting based on little to no verified evidence, or outright disinformation with potential forgeries. The question is to what extent is the story false?
First there’s the matter of Giuliani, who has started to change important details about the story. At first, the person who had dropped off the laptop couldn’t be positively identified by the store owner. Days later, Giuliani claimed that Hunter Biden personally delivered the laptop to the store. Which is it? Nobody knows, including Giuliani who most recently admitted there’s a “50/50 shot” that one of his former associates that worked with him to dig up dirt on the Bidens was an active Russian agent.
Giuliani appears to be in good company, as the computer repair shop owner also doesn’t appear to have a clear recollection of the events surrounding the receiving and handing over the notorious laptop.
But it gets even weirder. Enter the most recent follow-up report published by The New York Times which found that even the journalists for The Post are running away from the story, discovering that one of their own authors, Bruce Golding, refused to allow his name to be attached to the story over concerns about the article’s credibility. This is according to multiple employees speaking on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation. At first, the public was led to believe the story was written by Emma-Jo Morris, a former Fox News producer for Sean Hannity with no prior bylines at the Post, as well as Gabrielle Fonrouge, a Post reporter since 2014. As it turns out, three sources confirmed that Fonrouge actually had little to do with the writing or reporting of the article and didn’t even know her name was attached to the piece until it was published. Her name remains on the article to this today.
So, how exactly do we know the emails printed by the NY Post are authentic? Well, we don’t.
After independent analyses were conducted by The Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, nobody could verify their authenticity. Also, as pointed out by technology and national security expert Thomas Rid, several of the key emails the NY Post shared were in the format of image files, making it even harder to tell if they were genuine.
“There is no header information, no metadata. That makes it harder to analyze and verify the files.” Rid wrote on Twitter. “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.”
In addition, there’s no confirmation that the supposed “smoking gun” meeting with then-Vice President Biden actually happened or, if it did, that the two men discussed Shokin, the Chinese firm, or anything of the kind. When asked, a Biden spokesperson released a statement that the campaign reviewed the former vice president’s official schedules and that “no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.” Andrew Bates, a campaign official for Biden, told the Times that it’s “technically possible” the two met during any one of the Vice President’s events over the course of his political career, but that it “very unlikely” occurred. “I was with the vice president in all of his meetings on Ukraine,” added Michael Carpenter, Biden’s foreign policy adviser in 2015. “He never met with this guy. In fact, I had never heard of this guy until the New York Post story broke.”
Even based on the article’s own merits, it’s a sinking ship without much to prove. The language of the emails vague enough that it could indicate the executive only hoped a meeting would take place rather than confirming that one did, in fact, take place. Moreover, another alleged email sent on sent April 13, 2014 contradicts the notion Hunter Biden could even influence his father if such affairs happened. “What he will do and say is out of our hands,” Hunter Biden wrote in the email. The article also cites Amos Hochstein, who served with Biden as a special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, as having met Pozharskyi. “I know for a fact he never contacted me or my office,” Hochstein told The Washington Post. “I provided every record to the Senate investigation, and no mention of this guy was ever made, no emails, no correspondence. I know almost every player in the energy sector in Ukraine. I never met this guy.”
Given all the misleading information, the internal discord within the New York Post, the contradictory claims, the potential foreign influence, the inherent biases within the original sources and the fact none of these emails can be verified by anybody, this supposed bombshell report seems like nothing more than a routine October distraction being pushed days before the election. It doesn’t justify the intervention of social media as the right tool for the job, but to say the story should be considered with a great deal of skepticism is an understatement.