Skip to content
The Hunter Biden Story: A Microcosm of Our Miserable Times
Go to my account

The Hunter Biden Story: A Microcosm of Our Miserable Times

Multiple institutions fumbled the ball, amplifying earned distrust.

I don’t often write angry screeds. But in January 2017, I made an exception. BuzzFeed had just dumped the infamous Steele Dossier into the public square, and I thought it was shockingly irresponsible. As we now know, the dossier was full of unverified and salacious rumors about Donald Trump and the Trump campaign. Even worse, BuzzFeed published the dossier even though it hadn’t been able to verify its explosive claims. 

As we now know, the dossier’s impact on the American public debate was immediate and poisonous. All too many Democrats believed its key allegations and therefore expected the Special Counsel’s investigation would “prove up” its most explosive claims. And a significant number of Republicans came to believe that any misconduct short of the dossier’s extreme allegations was essentially no big deal—and they thus excused and still excuse the existence of considerable Trump campaign contact with Russians and Russian agents or assets. 

When you write about politics, you can find yourself a rumor magnet. Off and on shady people will try to peddle you shady rumors about politicians and other public figures. And no matter how juicy the dirt, you respond to offers of information with a single guiding principle—never trust. Always verify. 

Note well that “verify” doesn’t mean “prove.” But it does mean that it’s imperative to support allegations with independent, corroborating evidence. In fact, I applied that standard myself in 2016 when I was told that Trump was compromised by Russian intelligence. I asked about the evidence, and I learned it was an anonymously written and anonymously sourced series of memos that no one had been able to substantiate, my answer was easy—hard pass.

Let’s fast-forward to 2020, and the New York Post’s stories based on the contents of Hunter Biden’s alleged hard drive. Here’s my fundamental thesis: I’m not sure yet what’s true or what’s false, but multiple institutions have failed in their response to the developing controversy, and those failures have exacerbated the increasing earned distrust in American institutions.

First, the New York Post’s handling of the story seems highly irregular and improper. To refresh readers on the incredibly bizarre backstory, here’s the key segment from Thursday’s Morning Dispatch:

The source of the emails and photographs is John Paul Mac Isaac, a Delaware computer repairman, Trump supporter, and conspiracy theorist who alleges a customer dropped off three MacBook Pros in April 2019 and never retrieved them. Isaac, who says he is legally blind, says he can’t be 100 percent certain that they customer was Hunter Biden. Isaac gave at least one of the MacBooks—which he says had a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on it—and a hard drive to the FBI last December, but he also made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to [Rudy] Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello. It’s unclear how long Giuliani himself has had access to the hard drive, but he gave it to the New York Post on Sunday, just over three weeks before Election Day.

It turns out that Isaac has offered conflicting accounts of his interaction with the FBI, and we already know Giuliani has worked in the past with a Ukrainian lawmaker named Andrii Derkach, a person the Treasury Department has sanctioned and labeled “an active Russian agent.” (Giuliani gave a wild interview to the Daily Beast where he admitted that the chances Derkach was a Russian agent could be as high as “50/50” even in his own assessment.)

Moreover, reports from the New York Times and Mediaite reveals more troubling background details about the Post’s stories. Mediaite claims that Fox News passed on the story:

Mediaite has learned that Fox News was first approached by Rudy Giuliani to report on a tranche of files alleged to have come from Hunter Biden’s unclaimed laptop left at a Delaware computer repair shop, but that the news division chose not to run the story unless or until the sourcing and veracity of the emails could be properly vetted.

The New York Times reported that the story’s primary author was so troubled by the story’s credibility that he would not permit his byline to be used when the Post published the piece:

The New York Post’s front-page article about Hunter Biden on Wednesday was written mostly by a staff reporter who refused to put his name on it, two Post employees said.

Bruce Golding, a reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid since 2007, did not allow his byline to be used because he had concerns over the article’s credibility, the two Post employees said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

The Times story also contained this damning quote, from Giuliani:

Mr. Giuliani said he chose the Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”

Do these doubts mean the hard drive isn’t genuine or that all or some of the information dropped into the public square isn’t legitimate? Not at all. It might be genuine, even if the origin story is sketchy. But these stories together mean that we can’t have confidence in the Post’s reporting. 

A number of conservative journalists have pivoted to a different line of inquiry—focusing on whether Joe or Hunter Biden have clearly and unequivocally denied the posted materials from the hard drive are legitimate. The Biden campaign has denied that Biden met with a representative of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma in 2015. Its spokesman said, “we have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.”

But the campaign has not addressed the Post’s stories, in detail, which purport to not only describe the extent of Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings, but also include alleged messages sent between Hunter and Joe when Hunter was struggling with his (acknowledged) drug addictions. 

But the lack of a denial is not proof of veracity. First, remember that Biden is in the closing days of a political campaign—thus, his response is going to be driven a great deal by the tactical imperatives of the moment. And when the Post’s reporting is coming under far more fire (outside the conservative media) than the Biden campaign, why would Biden remove the focus from the Post

Second, we know from the recent past (including recent Russian meddling in the French presidential campaign), that genuine hacked or stolen material is often “salted” with forgeries. This places the target in a difficult position. Here’s Cato’s Walter Olson:

https://twitter.com/walterolson/status/1317472838358568966

Should Biden clearly and unequivocally confirm or deny each and every element of the Post’s stories? Perhaps. His failure to do so is not, however, confirmation of their substance.

But this piece isn’t just about the Post. Let’s move to the next major actors in this drama—Twitter and Facebook. It’s entirely proper for social media companies to be concerned about the viral spread of misinformation. Moreover, neither platform wants to act as the rocket fuel of foreign interference in American elections. So, it was understandable that both companies would be on high alert, especially given Giuliani’s connection to the hard drive. 

Facebook’s action was limited and far more defensible. As NPR reported, it throttled back access to the story in its news feed, limiting its spread to give its “independent fact-checkers more time to check it out.” (Disclosure: The Dispatch is one of those independent fact-checkers. We have not published a fact-check of those early reports.)

Twitter, however, went much further—blocking access to the story entirely and locking or suspending accounts who shared the story. It’s even blocked the New York Post from tweeting until it agrees to delete its tweets linking to the Hunter Biden hard drive stories. 

Under existing statutory and constitutional law, both Twitter and Facebook have the right to take the actions they took. They have a right to moderate their platforms, and are not compelled to post their users’ content. The question isn’t whether their actions were legal, but rather whether they were wise.

In fact, ham-handed attempts at online censorship can, perversely enough, enable the spread of misinformation as anger over the perceived injustice of the moderation rockets not just across the platform itself, but also across the media outlets Silicon Valley doesn’t control.

Twitter, in particular, fumbled. It would be defensible to argue that it was imperative to limit access to information that hadn’t been verified and that came through an individual known to be in communication with a Russian agent. Instead, Twitter argued that the posted materials contained personal information, violated its hacked materials policy (though it’s far from clear that the material was hacked), and it also said this:

https://twitter.com/twittersafety/status/1316525307441147907

Yet Twitter plainly and clearly permits the distribution of “illegally obtained materials” on its platform. How can we know this? It permitted the widespread sharing of New York Times stories about Donald Trump’s tax returns. Moreover, the policy isn’t wise even as defined. It would prevent, for example, articles based on leaks of classified information (like, say, the Pentagon Papers.)

The result was entirely predictable. Right-wing world erupted in anger at Twitter and Facebook, decrying the “totalitarianism” of the Silicon Valley (ironically enough, by condemning Twitter and Facebook … on Twitter and Facebook) and utilizing the immense conservative media/entertainment complex—including Fox News, talk radio, and conservative websites—to amplify the Hunter Biden story and amplify social media censorship. 

Arguably, Twitter’s actions gave the story more traction, not less. And that brings us to the final institutional failure—Republican reprisals against “Big Tech.” Not only did Senator Josh Hawley tell Sean Hannity that Americans should be able to sue Twitter if they are blocked form sharing the Post story, he repeated the false talking point that social media companies enjoy a “sweetheart” deal from the federal government. 

Hawley has little present ability to execute on his threats. But the Federal Communications Commission has real power, and its chairman, Ajit Pai, vowed to move forward with “rulemaking” to “clarify” Section 230 of the Communications Act. Here’s Pai’s statement:

The last line is particularly surprising. Social media companies do not have a “special immunity” denied to “other media outlets.” They have the same immunity. Simply put, Section 230 protects all providers of “interactive computer services” from being liable for user content simply because they moderate that content. Here’s how I explained the law recently in Time

The law did two things. First, it declared that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In plain English, this means that my comments on Twitter or Google or Yelp or the comments section of my favorite website are my comments, and my comments only.

But Section 230 went farther, it also declared that an internet provider can “restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” without being held liable for user content. This is what allows virtually all mainstream social media companies to remove obscene or pornographic content. This allows websites to take down racial slurs – all without suddenly also becoming liable for all the rest of their users’ speech.

This law isn’t a “sweetheart” giveaway to social media. It’s the foundation of free speech online. It allows The Dispatch to moderate comments. It allows Facebook to keep its pages nudity-free. It allows you to post a restaurant review without someone holding, say, Yelp liable for your assessment of the service or the food. And no, it does not require that any internet provider be “neutral.” It empowers them to shape their sites as they see fit. 

And so here we are. The New York Post should not have published its stories without more comprehensive, transparent efforts at verification. Twitter should not have applied double standards and an unworkable policy to block access to the Post’s story. And neither Republican senators nor the Trump administration should seek to inject the government into the moderation policies of private corporations. Leave online free speech alone. 

One more thing …

I awoke this morning to find out that Stars and Stripes had posted a review of my book. I read every review with some trepidation, but this one was good, and it truly understood how a deployment can change your perspective. I liked these paragraphs:

In his first sentence, French warns that “the continued unity of the United States cannot be guaranteed.” His premise is that polarization and the increasing geographic separation of ideological groups is creating extremism, heightened division and dangerous instability in the nation. This instability, he says, may result in a disunited United States. French is not the only voice crying in this particular wilderness, but he stands apart by offering a remedy, telling Americans both red and blue they have the power to avoid disaster. To spur readers to meaningful action, he uses fiction to illustrate that secession is a very real possibility and why it’s a bad one.

And:

In a season of sharp contrasts between red and blue and with a major election looming, French’s book is a timely and necessary read. Even those who don’t quite believe in the imminent danger of secession will appreciate his call to renewed courage and character. He offers a timeless reminder of the importance of justice, mercy and humility toward one another—imperfect people in an imperfect world, still hoping for a more perfect union.

If you haven’t purchased the book yet, you can buy it here

One last thing …

I just have two words and one tweet. The words: King Henry. The tweet:

Photograph by Kris Connor/WireImage via Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.