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But his emails
Facebook and Twitter are both on high alert for 2016-style hack-and-leak campaigns. But Twitter's taking much of the heat.
(Yup, like everyone else, I moved from TinyLetter to Substack. Sign up your friends so they, too, can receive sporadic emails on a totally random cadence from a newsletter they thought they’d unsubscribed from already.)
Yesterday, friendly local rag The New York Post published a piece titled “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.” In it, “reporters” Emma-Jo Morris (an alumna of journalistic titans Washington Free Beacon, CPAC and Fox News) and Gabrielle Fonrouge explain:
Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.
The remainder of the article — with the exception of some regrettable shirtless photos of a middle-aged Hunter smoking a cigarette in a bathtub, accompanied by the Post’s none-too-subtle implication of much worse fare yet to emerge (a truism of all middle age, really) — is a yawn-inducing rehash of well-trodden allegations from the Fox News cinematic universe: namely, that Hunter Biden, Joe’s erstwhile son, supposedly used his position as a Burisma board member to convince his father to fire a prosecutor that was investigating the company for corruption.
Leaving aside the fact that this theory is wholly belied by the facts — the prosecutor was in fact not investigating corruption, which is why Biden and virtually the entire Western diplomatic community was pressuring Ukraine to fire him — the Post’s story of how it obtained this information is, ahem, just slightly implausible:
The computer was dropped off at a repair shop in Biden’s home state of Delaware in April 2019, according to the store’s owner…
The customer who brought in the water-damaged MacBook Pro for repair never paid for the service or retrieved it or a hard drive on which its contents were stored, according to the shop owner, who said he tried repeatedly to contact the client.
The shop owner couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden, but said the laptop bore a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, named after Hunter’s late brother and former Delaware attorney general.
Photos of a Delaware federal subpoena given to The Post show that both the computer and hard drive were seized by the FBI in December, after the shop’s owner says he alerted the feds to their existence…
But before turning over the gear, the shop owner says, he made a copy of the hard drive and later gave it to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello.
That is…quite the chronology, to say the least. But first, and I hate to digress here, I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone less wholeheartedly to successfully parse through data recovered from a water-damaged hard drive than America’s Mayor, of whom entire articles have been written on his butt-dialing prowess and general technological ineptitude. I can only assume the famously principled Giuliani simply misunderstood what the shop owner meant and got excited when he asked for his expertise with something “corrupted.”
This man — who was, hilariously, appointed as Trump’s cybersecurity adviser in 2017 — had to visit an Apple Genius bar less than a month later to unlock his phone after entering his password incorrectly at least ten (10!) consecutive times. Literally just last night he accidentally uploaded an entire video to YouTube of himself repeatedly trying to imitate a Chinese accent (which turns out to sound suspiciously more like an old, white, alcoholic racist in cognitive decline).
Anyway. The Washington Post — which, for those keeping track, ranks several notches higher on the official ‘Networked’ Hierarchy of Posts than its New York-based cousin — published a helpful explainer that walks through the allegations, notably concluding (emphasis mine):
As Giuliani has sought to locate information about Hunter Biden and Ukraine, he has regularly interacted with a Ukrainian lawmaker who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as being an “active Russian agent for over a decade” and was engaged in an influence operation to affect the 2020 election. Those interactions have given rise to fears that the emails could be part of a broader disinformation campaign.
Indeed, warnings of a 2016-style hack-and-leak campaign have been circulating for some time. Three weeks ago, Giuliani’s cybersecurity counterpart Nathaniel Gleicher — think of him as a spry version of Rudy whose boss is less invested in American democracy — specifically predicted this exact type of scenario:
So within hours of the New York Post’s piece emerging, multiple social media giants acted:
Facebook and Twitter took unusual steps Wednesday to limit readership of an article by the New York Post about alleged emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, one of the rare occasions they have sanctioned a traditional media outlet…
Facebook preemptively limited the spread of the story while sending it to third-party fact-checkers, a decision the company said it has taken on various occasions but is not the standard process. Twitter allowed the story to surge to a No. 3 trending topic in the U.S., although later marked the link as “potentially unsafe” and blocked it. It also temporarily locked White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s account, as well as the New York Post’s, adding notices to their tweets saying they violated Twitter’s rules on prohibiting publishing hacked materials. Trump’s campaign account was also temporarily locked.
This reaction elicited predictable cries of censorship from the same political party that wants to repeal Section 230 because occasionally only 8 of the top 10 most popular daily links on Facebook are from The Daily Wire:
Indeed, although both Facebook and Twitter took fairly assertive action to stem the Post’s post’s virality, Twitter’s more visible enforcement — literally preventing the article from being shared via tweet — was subjected to particular vitriol (and, now, a subpoena), forcing its Safety team and, eventually, payment app Square’s CEO (he’s sort of an honorary Twitter exec) to issue procedural clarifications:
Candidly, stuff on Twitter happening “with zero context as to why” is pretty much the business model. But Dorsey was right in one important sense: Twitter’s comms strategy around its decision was a mess. At first they claimed they had blocked the Post article due to Twitter’s hacked material policy, but this was soon amended to claim that the article was also blocked because it included personal information (which it did).
As with all things disinformation on social media these days, the principle was effectively backdated to the policy decision. And, as multiple journalists pointed out, even the principle itself made little sense:
Where would The New York Times’ stories on Trump’s tax returns fit into this rubric? What about Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA?
These are questions with no real answers, because to attribute a disinformation ‘policy’ to either Twitter or Facebook is essentially a category error. Twitter has a long, ignominious history of ricocheting between public outcries and bold but slipshod policy decisions conceived under the gun, and Facebook…well, they just banned Holocaust denial on Monday, two years after Mark Zuckerberg had specifically called out Holocaust denialism, unsolicited, as a form of expression he would refuse to ban from the platform. So that’s how that’s going.
To the extent that Facebook has a disinformation policy shop at all, it’s some sort of steampunk cocktail of whatever Joel Kaplan’s got on his mind at any given moment coupled with the 538 presidential election forecast:
But enough about all of that. I’m less interested in ad-hoc policymaking and more interested in how Facebook’s and Twitter’s ‘censorship’ methodology differed — and specifically how that difference resulted in, for example, Facebook not yet getting subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If you read Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone’s tweets on the matter, he makes it clear that the social network reduced the Post story’s distribution prior to any fact-checking. He also linked to a Facebook blog post from last October, which stated in part:
In addition to clearer labels, we’re also working to take faster action to prevent misinformation from going viral, especially given that quality reporting and fact-checking takes time. In many countries, including in the US, if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker.
In fairness to Facebook, this is actually a policy, and it appears they did enforce it more or less as they’d stated in advance.
What’s weird, then, is that…this is also basically what Twitter did! The key differences, it seems to me, are twofold:
Twitter didn’t really base this on any coherent policy.
Twitter’s enforcement action was in users’ faces, and Facebook’s was invisible.
I’ve already covered #1. But #2 is (to me, anyway) a more interesting discussion. All social platforms are, to very large extents, black boxes to the outside world, in terms of which posts show up on whose feed and how often. When Andy Stone says Facebook is “[reducing] distribution,” that could mean anything from showing 0.1% fewer impressions to showing 99.9% fewer impressions. No one outside Facebook (and probably few inside it) knows where reality lies on that spectrum.
Twitter took the more transparent approach by literally popping up a modal right in the app to let you know you’re not allowed to share that article. (At least, that’s what I hear: I deleted the Twitter app months ago to cut down on my use, and like any good Twitter addict have been relentlessly doomscrolling on mobile web ever since.)
But the putative objective of both approaches was the same: to limit the article’s distribution. And in both cases, the platforms deliberately contravened the intent of their users to share a certain piece of content.
Twitter’s is the more fundamentally honest decision: it’s the nanny state in your face, telling you no. Facebook’s design is more of the gaslighting variety, although this isn’t due to some cultural or product management divide between the two companies: in fact, Twitter’s “mute” feature does nearly the exact same thing — albeit on a one-to-one user interaction basis, not the one-to-many distribution reduction that Facebook employed yesterday.
This methodological difference, it seems, accounts for the disparate reactions to the two companies’ approaches. Twitter’s policy was impossible to ignore and, for many conservatives, irresistible as well:
But if the purpose of both platforms’ policies was to actually limit users’ interest in, and distribution of, the content of the New York Post article, I’d put money on Facebook’s approach being the smarter one. Twitter created an inadvertent Streisand effect that seemingly did little to reduce conversation surrounding the Biden story, and may have even amplified it. Meanwhile, for all we know, Facebook could have quietly reduced the article’s reach by 90%.
We may never know for sure. But I bet I know a certain New York ex-mayor and cybersecurity adviser who could fail miserably at trying to find out.