Three weeks before the election of 2020, a New York newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton published a tabloid-style headline that read “Biden’s secret emails.”
Reporters for the New York Post examined emails, documents and photos found on a laptop that appeared to belong to Hunter Biden, son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. Some of the photographs were lurid; the kind of stuff that would embarrass any family, not just one in the public eye. But the Post was most interested in correspondence that has taken on new significance in recent weeks. It was about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, which also seemed to involve his father.
Last fall, of course, few Americans were paying attention to Ukraine. And many Americans were interested in seeing Joe Biden elected. So there wasn’t a huge outcry when Twitter suspended the Post’s account for two weeks, saying its reporting came from hacked material.
That apparently wasn’t true — the laptop had been abandoned at a Delaware repair shop — but the Post’s reporting has held up and some of it was even acknowledged this past week in The New York Times.
All of this has turned former President Donald Trump’s battle cry of “fake news” on its head, and begs the question: What happens when news that was widely deemed to be fake is not? Some speculate that, in this case, the outcome of the 2020 election was affected.
New York Post columnist Miranda Devine said at the National Conservatism Conference in November that the suppression of the newspaper’s reporting on social media amounted to election interference. “If the full story had been allowed to be told, it would have changed votes,” Devine said.
Of course, the stories weren’t completely suppressed, only on some social-media platforms, and only for two weeks. And the Post benefited from publicity about the Twitter suspension, which likely drove more readers to its website.
The bigger problem, as Devine noted, was that it was a story that many people didn’t want to hear. “That was because the goal was to get rid of Donald Trump,” she said. “Any method was accepted because ‘every civilized person’ knew he was beyond the pale,” she said.
There was more to it than that. The lurid photos were an invasion of privacy and simply distasteful. Hunter Biden’s business dealings with an energy company in a relatively obscure foreign country were, frankly, not really interesting to average Americans, who already have low trust not only in the government, but in each other.
Also, to people who hadn’t read the reporting, all the talk about “Hunter Biden’s laptop” didn’t sound like anything involving his father, and most Americans aren’t eager to vilify parents for something their adult offspring did. (There but for the grace of God go we.)
But with Ukraine front and center of the news now, and an ongoing federal investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings, the Post’s reporting — which California Rep. Adam Schiff once called “a smear straight from the Kremlin” — is newly fascinating to people who previously dismissed it.
After the Times reported on the Justice Department inquiry March 16, people on social media called for apologies from not only Twitter, but people who have long said the reports were wrong, including security experts who in 2020 signed an open letter saying the emails seemed to be Russia’s attempt to interfere in the U.S. election.
Jack Dorsey, then CEO of Twitter, has said the company was wrong to have removed the links to the story. But generally, apologies are hard to come by when yesterday’s disinformation becomes today’s news. The line becomes: “new information has been made available.” This is true with regard to the pandemic, too. A year ago, people like talk-show host Clay Travis were said to be conspiracy theorists spreading disinformation when they challenged reporting of the number of COVID-19 deaths.
But in Massachusetts, public health officials recently changed how the commonwealth reports COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, saying the former method resulted in a “significant overcount” of deaths. Massachusetts is now reporting the number of people who were hospitalized and died solely because of COVID-19; as well as the number of people who were hospitalized and died with other diseases or life-threatening conditions, and also had COVID-19.
In other words, this was another example of “fake news” that quietly became true.
This is not to say that there isn’t fake news out there that will be fake throughout eternity. We swim in a cesspool of disinformation every time we access the internet, and it’s getting harder every day to discern the truth, with “deep fake” technology and bots that exist to mislead us.
And while they are often accused of censorship, social-media companies must walk a fine line between allowing freedom of speech and preventing bad actors from spreading what has been dubbed “malinformation” — especially in the weeks leading up to an election.
But the saga of the New York Post and Hunter Biden’s laptop is a reminder that we don’t always recognize truth when we see it — and there’s likely more to this story yet to be revealed. Now, more than ever, the adage I was taught in journalism school is valid: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.