Members Only | December 9, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Hunter Biden and Elon Musk’s crowd-pleasing vaporware
The whole thing stinks worse than an illegal Twitter flophouse.
Last week, Chief Twit Elon Musk enlisted Substacker Matt Taibbi to recap Twitter’s handling of the “Hunter Biden laptop” story based on archived corporate emails that Musk now owns.
It already seems like a lifetime ago, but in October 2020, weeks before the presidential election, the New York Post published a story about a disk image allegedly taken from a laptop that Hunter Biden had abandoned at a repair shop in Delaware.
Twitter temporarily blocked the story because it included personally identifiable information that they suspected had been hacked. Republicans said it was horribly partisan to accuse the Donald Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians, even though the disk image came from Rudy Giuliani who had been very publicly pumping Russian agents for dirt on Hunter Biden for months.
Musk played the hype man and teased Taibbi’s tweetstorm as the scandal of the century. This was to be the second – hell, the third – coming of Watergate, Iran Contra, and Deflategate all rolled into one. Musk claimed these emails showed that Twitter had colluded with the government to help Joe Biden.
As usual, Musk’s pitch was crowd-pleasing vaporware. Taibbi actually described how Twitter executives blocked the New York Post story all by themselves, adding that he’d seen “no evidence of any government involvement.”
Taibbi shared emails that confirmed what we already knew: Twitter execs froze access to the story because they were worried it was part of a Russian attack on the election. Twitter had been repeatedly warned by Trump’s FBI to be on the alert for hack and leak operations associated with a political campaign and possibly starring Hunter Biden. The New York Post story checked all those boxes.
In 2016, Russian state hackers leaked emails they’d stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The attack weakened Clinton and may even have cost her the election. In early 2020, Donald Trump was impeached for trying to force Ukraine to announce a fake investigation into none other than Hunter Biden. To make matters worse, the New York Post story was based on a disk image supplied by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s main point of contact with Russian agents in Ukraine.
Far from showing a Borg determined to help Joe Biden at all costs, Taibbi’s cache of emails shows a lively debate in the Twitter C-suite as execs tried to balance freedom of the press against election integrity and national security. They blocked the story for violating Twitter’s ban on “hacked materials” bearing personally identifying information because the New York Post story included images with unredacted emails and phone numbers. The trouble was, there was no proof the data was hacked. There still isn’t. But the whole thing stank worse than an illegal Twitter flophouse.
Twitter was in a tough spot because Giuliani claimed that Hunter’s data was abandoned, not hacked. Then again, no reasonable person would take Giuliani’s word for that. If Hunter’s data had been hacked, Giuliani had a vested interest in concealing that fact. The emails show that twitter execs used the ban to buy time while they conducted their own investigation.
History has vindicated Twitter’s caution. In 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that Russian president Vladimir Putin had personally authorized a major interference campaign for the 2020 election based on conspiracy theories about the Biden family and Ukraine. Giuliani was investigated by the FBI for his role in Ukraine, but ultimately wasn’t charged, primarily because although his efforts helped both Russia and Trump, he got paid only by Trump.
This saga would prompt any reasonable person to think how Twitter’s rules could be crafted to better address the next foreign attack on our elections. Unfortunately, Elon Musk is not a reasonable person.
He’s a raging egomaniac who seized upon his former employees’ good faith efforts to handle an unprecedented threat as a pretext to make twitter ground zero for foreign intelligence agencies to attack American democracy.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.