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This Is What Disinformation Looks Like

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Staff (Getty Images)

A front-page story published by the New York Post on Wednesday has supporters of President Donald Trump soiling their trousers with glee. The Post characterizes its story as casting doubt on Joe Biden’s claim that he and his son Hunter never discussed Hunter’s business dealings abroad. It is so riddled with holes that Facebook and Twitter say they’re trying to limit the number of people exposed to it.

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The Trump campaign and its supporters will make this bullshit yarn impossible to ignore regardless of how baldly suspect it is, so we may as well wade through the crap. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.

Under the headline “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad,” the story (you can still Google it—I’m not linking) is centered around an April 2017 email allegedly between an executive of Ukrainian energy company Burisma and Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s second son. The email, acquired by the Post —through dubious means that we’ll get into in a moment—implies that the executive, Vadym Pozharskyi, met with Joe and Hunter Biden in Washington, D.C. The story is specifically framed to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s claim that he has “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.”

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That takes us to the first sentence of the article, which falsely claims that Biden “pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating” Burisma. This is repeating the same Trump-backed conspiracy theory that was central to the impeachment of President Donald Trump late last year. (Remember that? Me neither.) In fact, the prosecutor Biden pushed to have fired wasn’t investigating Burisma and was a corrupt asshole, which is why Biden and other government leaders wanted him out.

The fact that this false claim is what the Post led with is a big red flag that you should just close your tab. Since the story was published earlier today, the Biden campaign has denied a meeting between the former vice president and Pozharskyi, saying, “we have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.” Of course, that alone disproves nothing. What’s more important is that, even if Biden did meet with Pozharskyi, there is no scandal. An investigation by Senate Republicans found no wrongdoing by either Hunter or Joe Biden in relation to Burisma, so what are we even talking about here?

What makes this different from the other thinly sourced tabloid crap the Post prints is what’s not in the story and the details around how this story came to exist at all.

We have the alleged email, which was allegedly discovered on a laptop that was “dropped off at a repair shop in Biden’s home state of Delaware in April 2019, according to the store’s owner.” The repair shop owner, who is not named in the story (but was later interviewed by the Daily Beast and identified as John Paul Isaac), reportedly told the Post that he copied the contents of the laptop after his customer (who may or may not be Hunter Biden; it’s not clear from the story despite a photo of a receipt with Hunter’s name on it) failed to pick it up.

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After making a copy of the laptop’s contents, Isaac reportedly turned over the files to a lawyer of Rudy Giuliani and alerted “the feds” to its existence. The Post claims the FBI later seized the laptop as well as a hard drive Isaac copied its contents to.

The Post story doesn’t answer any of the obvious questions, like why Isaac copied the laptop in the first place or how the hell he got in touch with Giuliani’s lawyer. In his interview with the Daily Beast, Isaac appeared “nervous,” repeatedly changing his story about his role in the laptop landing in the hands of the FBI. He further claimed he was unable to positively identify the owner of the device because he “had a medical condition that prevented him from actually seeing who dropped off the laptop.”

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Based on social media posts, Isaac is an avid Trump supporter and a believer in a conspiracy theory which posits that those responsible for murdering DNC staffer Seth Rich weren’t robbers, but were in fact the Clinton family. Isaac told the Beast and other reporters that he made the copy of the laptop because he didn’t want to “get murdered”—presumably in a similar fashion. He also wouldn’t answer questions “about whether he had been in contact with Rudy Giuliani before the laptop drop off or at any other time before the Post’s publication.” All of this calls into question the provenance and veracity of the email, and the email itself—which only appears in the story as a screenshot and is not published elsewhere in any format that would allow for outside analysis.

The FBI seizure is supported in the story with photos of what’s reportedly a grand jury subpoena, which does list a hard drive and a MacBook Pro, but there’s no mention of Hunter Biden. On their own, these prove nothing. Further, a photo of the invoice for the laptop repair says the customer (presumably Hunter Biden) dropped off three laptops for data recovery services, which the Post story makes no mention of and likely should have verified prior to publication.

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The Post reports that it was alerted to the existence of the hard drive by Steve Bannon, the ghoulish former adviser to Trump who was recently indicted for co-running an allegedly fraudulent GoFundMe campaign to build a southern border wall. Giuliani, meanwhile, is one of the very same people who attempted to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens over Hunter’s Burisma ties—you know, the thing that got Trump impeached. The former New York City mayor and Trump attorney also has known ties to a Ukrainian member of parliament whom the Treasury Department said has been “an active Russian agent for over a decade” and used “manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world.”

So we have two proven shitbags as the sources of this story, one of whom has direct ties to Russian intelligence and was central in the attempt to smear Joe Biden that led to Trump’s impeachment, leaking a thinly evidenced non-scandal to a Trump-friendly publication just weeks from Election Day. Okay.

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Naturally, the Trump campaign is already claiming it shows Joe Biden “lied,” which it doesn’t. And Republicans are jumping on the bandwagon. Hours after the Post published its story, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg laying into the Facebook CEO over the company’s apparent plan to reduce the spread of the Post’s story on its platform before it had been fact-checked. The senator also sent a similar letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey after that platform prevented users from sharing links to the article on the grounds that it violated its rules against sharing “hacked materials.”

Even if Facebook and Twitter did reduce the distribution of the story, it’s still out there and causing damage: According to Facebook-owned social analytics platform Crowdtangle, the tall tale has been shared more than 87,000 times as of this writing. So the story is still out there getting shared, Republicans have a concrete example of social media companies censoring conservatives, and we’re all surely going to have to listen to Trump spout off this nonsense time and again in the coming weeks. Even if the Post’s story is stupid, you gotta admit it did the job it was meant to do—and we’re all poorer for it.

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Deputy Editor, Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

arcanumv
Arcanum Five

No biggie. I found a flash drive in the park that has a Word doc in which Donald J. Trump lists his IOUs to numerous off-shore interests and also confesses to having Jeffrey Epstein strangled. It’s completely real.