Good Friday Morning, to everyone except Josh Norman of the Buffalo Bills, who is reportedly still sailing through space after Derrick Henry’s stiff-arm ended Norman’s career, or at least his pride.
We are 18 days away, under three weeks, from the Presidential election. That clock is ticking on the 4th quarter clock for the Trump campaign, and like any team behind, the clock is Trump’s enemy right now. RealClearPolitics still has Trump down by 9.4 points in the polls, which is down from the 10.3 point margin earlier in the week. There’s still a split between Trump’s approval rating, which is up a hair to 44.7 from 44.5%, and Trump’s ~42% showing in the topline polls. Even if he closes that, Biden is still leading by a wide margin in the polls.
FiveThirtyEight has dropped Trump’s chances to 13% with Biden winning 87% of the simulated races. It’s possible for Trump to win, but he’s got to pull a miracle out of his hat sometime soon. Biden is winning every key demographic that pulled Trump over the line in 2016, and nothing Trump does shifts the focus. Trump’s campaign desperately needs him to leave the news cycle, and for Biden to dominate the news in a negative way from here to the election. As I wrote in 2016 and is true now: you do not want to be leading the news in these elections. The more people see of you, the more they’re reminded they hate you. News cycle elections are driven by negative polarization.
And here’s one more point: COVID-19 cases are up across the United States, Europe is in the throes of a second wave of the virus, and if cases/hospitalizations continue drifting up at their current rate, we could be at or near prior hospitalization highs on election day. The coronavirus is the number one issue on people’s minds right now, and it will likely be the number one topic come election day. Biden is lapping Trump in all polls on that one point.
But also worth watching because COVID-19 is now visiting the Biden campaign. At least two staffers and one flight staff for the campaign have tested positive for the virus. Kamala Harris has canceled her traveling and moved to virtual events. Biden has declined to do so and even stayed late at his townhall taking audience questions after the show was over. We’ll see if their precautions prevent the spread.
This week I’m writing about an October surprise that’s dropped from the New York Post about the Biden family. We’re going to cover that story, why it has issues, and why the broader issue is less about that story than the fallout around social media companies trying to control information that people get. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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Biden, Harris fabricate history on court-packing – The Conservative Institute.
Moral relativity begets a hyper-polarized mind where anything goes – The Conservative Institute.
NYPost’s sketchy story, Internet censorship, and what comes next?
Sometimes the trickiest thing about an October surprise is knowing whether you have a real one or something manufactured. To be sure, typically, any time a negative story emerges in the October of an election year, it’s purposely timed to affect the race. That’s why the Atlantic ran its and NYTimes ran their big stories on Trump, and it’s why the NYPost is dropping their report on Hunter Biden now. These are all timed hits, either by journalists or the opposition researchers who feed them.
That’s doesn’t negate the truth of any hit; it just always explains the timing. I say that because, during this time of the election cycle, it’s best to be extra skeptical of any “smoking gun” story. It could be true, like the Access Hollywood tape of Trump, or the James Comey letter to Congress on the investigation into Hilary Clinton. Or it could be an utter fabrication, like Dan Rather running with an utterly fabricated story of George W. Bush having a DUI on his record.
The NYPost October Surprise.
That brings us to the “bombshell” story by the New York Post: “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.” The NYPost boils the claims down in the introductory paragraphs:
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 never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.
“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the email reads.
An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.
The blockbuster correspondence — which flies in the face of Joe Biden’s claim that he’s “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — is contained in a massive trove of data recovered from a laptop computer.
The essence of the story is that there’s a fire in the smoke behind allegations that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, used his father to score overseas gigs. Joe Biden has long denied having any part in his son’s shady activities. What this story attempts to do is connect Joe Biden to Hunter Biden’s unsavory activities. The NYPost released follow-up stories with more emails included.
Wednesday morning, when this story dropped, I had no plans to cover it. I didn’t find it very credible and still see issues, which we’re going to cover. But I’ll let you decide. The reason I’m recounting it is simple:
- After the NYPost released the story, a firestorm erupted.
- Twitter banned the report.
- Facebook threatened to do the same, and;
- Journalists are refusing to cover or share the information.
It’s the most out-in-the-open conspiracy to swing the news in favor of one candidate I’ve ever seen. And they did this without knowing the truth; there were no attempts to investigate or do shoe-leather reporting. That’s going to have stark consequences in the regulatory space. We’ll get to that at the end.
NYPost and credibility issues.
The first and foremost problem for this story is sourcing. The Post says they got the emails from a hard-drive purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, but no one can confirm this for sure. Here’s what the Post says:
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.
Other material extracted from the computer includes a raunchy, 12-minute video that appears to show Hunter, who’s admitted struggling with addiction problems, smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman, as well as numerous other sexually explicit images.
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.
Without the laptop, we don’t have a way to verify much of this report. From the Post’s reporting, it’s also unclear whether or not they have the original emails or only PDF copies of those documents. It’s entirely possible all the information involved was fabricated. Because the people who fed this information to the NYPost are Steve Bannon and Rudy Guiliani, who have shady dealings themselves, I generally wouldn’t trust them. As I said at the top, you need lots of skepticism during these weeks of an election for everyone.
Some of the better reporting on Hunter Biden on this front came from NYMagazine last year when it became an issue in the debates and during the primaries. See: Joe Biden Still Can’t Answer Basic Questions About Hunter and Burisma, Hunter Biden Defense Self in New Interview, Could Hunter Biden be an issue during Trump impeachment?
The Biden campaign has denied the allegations of the report, pointing to prior reporting that claim clears them. The essence of those stories is that there’s no evidence of any laws getting broken, which is likely true! Even if every claim is valid, it’s unlikely any laws got broken. This behavior would fall under the canopy of legal, shady activity.
Biden’s denial isn’t the end of the story though. Politico had the following in their report on the story:
Biden’s campaign would not rule out the possibility that the former VP had some kind of informal interaction with Pozharskyi, which wouldn’t appear on Biden’s official schedule. But they said any encounter would have been cursory. Pozharskyi did not respond to a request for comment.
And senior Biden advisers who spoke to POLITICO on Wednesday — including Michael Carpenter and Amos Hochstein, who staffed the vice president at the time — similarly said that while there was never an official meeting, it’s technically conceivable that Pozharskyi would have approached Biden on the sidelines of some broader U.S.-Ukraine event. But they emphasized that they have no indication that happened, and that they had never heard of Pozharskyi before.
As the NYPost cheekily noted in their reporting/editorial responses, neither the Biden campaign nor Hunter Biden has denied the laptop belongs to Hunter, that the emails are real, or some of the critical facts in the case.
Where does that leave us? I’ll let you decide. The stories are linked above, and the mess of whether any of it is credible is laid out here. I’m not taking a side on it until more credible reporting comes out, especially regarding the laptop and whether the emails are real or fakes. I could see this going either way. Either it’s all factual or fabricated. The Post has timed this for maximum electoral impact, but that’s not unique to them.
Many on the left have gone full, “This is more Russian interference!” And again, with no capacity to see and verify the emails and laptop, it’s impossible to say anything right now. I have a general rule with these kinds of stories to let them breathe at least 72 hours to see what can and can’t get verified. We haven’t hit that point with this story yet. But I had to write about it because of the real reason this shot to the top of the news cycle foodchain: Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter, Facebook, and Banning stories.
The NYPost released this story, and Twitter and Facebook began working on banning it in the span of a few hours. I’m not joking about that; I tested it out myself on both Twitter and Facebook. Twitter blocked posting the initial link at all. Facebook allowed it, but I can’t tell if they’re limiting the reach of the story. But it wasn’t just social media platforms. The mainstream press actively tried to suppress any attempt of anyone to read the story. Robby Soave over at Reason summed this up:
[T]wo mainstream reporters who acknowledged (and criticized) the Post’s scoop—The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman and Politico’s Jake Sherman—faced thunderous denunciation on Twitter from Democratic partisans simply for discussing the story. Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden accused Haberman of promoting disinformation, and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg told Sherman that he was helping nefarious conservative activists “launder this bullshit into the news cycle.” Historian Kevin Kruse asked why they were “amplifying” the story.
Sherman later posted that Twitter had locked his account until he had deleted the “offending” tweets with the link. Twitter blocked many users who did the same thing, including official Trump campaign accounts and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Other accounts got locked for posting screenshots of the story. In a shot at Twitter, the GOP Account posted a video of the story scrolling down the screen, daring a takedown.
More from Soave on Facebook’s role in this:
Facebook Communications Director Andy Stone, a former Democratic staffer, announced that the social media platform would limit the article’s distribution pending a fact-checker’s review. He directed users to Facebook policy, which states that “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.”
While Facebook is within its rights to take action against content it believes is factually misleading, this seems like a tough standard to enforce evenly. News articles in the mainstream press frequently contain information that is thinly or anonymously sourced, and sometimes proves to be inaccurate. It’s one thing for social media platforms to take swift action against viral content that is very obviously false or incendiary, like conspiracy theories about coronavirus miracle cures or voter fraud. It’s quite another for the platform to essentially make itself a gatekeeper of legitimate journalism, or a very selective media watchdog that appears to be more concerned about bad reporting when it comes from right-leaning outlets than left-leaning outlets, given the partisan leanings of social media company’s internal policy setters.
As I said at the top, I posted the link on Twitter and Facebook. Twitter blocked the link; Facebook did not. I’m not sure how Facebook deals with increased traffic to the link, but that’s what they said. Late Thursday, Twitter’s legal team said they were changing their rules to relax these standards. The left is mad at that decision and wants these social media companies to throttle these stories from ever appearing.
Biden received no questions on this story during his two-hour town hall on ABC with George Stephanopoulos. Don’t be surprised by that. Biden’s campaign gave their first post-convention interview to ABC after the convention. They ran to ABC for this town hall. ABC is Biden’s version of FoxNews. Trump went with NBC for the viewership. Biden went with ABC because he wanted a comfortable night.
The question is, where do we go from here? And by that, I mean Big Tech. The truth of the Biden story will work itself out over the coming days/weeks. We need to know whether it’s real or fake, and if it is fabricated as some suggest, we need to know the who/why of that. And if it’s true, Biden should get questioned on it repeatedly.
But that still leaves what Facebook and Twitter did, stepping in and putting their thumb on the scale. This event is going to have long-term consequences, no matter how these companies change their rules. There’s already a faction of the right that wants to change Section 230 regulation regarding the internet. The left wants the same. A long story short, this kind of regulation could impact whether or not we govern these companies like newspapers or just platforms.
I don’t like this move. Big Tech (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) wants regulation. They know new rules will kill innovation and competition in their fields. Democrats and Republicans have different reasons for pushing regulation, and none of them are good or well thought out. I’d favor commencing antitrust lawsuits instead.
And here’s the thing: action on this front is inevitable. Libertarians and conservatives who try to sit back and get nothing to happen need to realize that ship has sailed. Major companies in the United States just tried to intervene with journalism in a Presidential Election. These companies were censoring everyone who was involved, including campaigns. These sites are, like it or not, how people get their news and information. This behavior is not acceptable to anyone.
If action is inevitable, then strengthening and then using antitrust laws is the better bet. Here’s why: it avoids unnecessary new regulation on the internet. We don’t want to bring in new rules that give these tech companies what they want. It’s similar to the phenomenon of the Baptists and the Bootleggers. It’s the economic theory where the pro- and anti-alcohol groups both wanted liquor bans, but for different reasons.
When it comes to Section 230, Democrats, Republicans, and Big Tech are like that. They want the same thing for different reasons. I don’t think that should happen. Bust them up with antitrust. That sends a message to the tech companies, it reduces the cultural power of those companies and avoids unnecessary new regulations. The other thing is this: if we decide busting them up was a mistake, the free markets will solve that over time with various mergers and acquisitions. You get the impact needed without increasing the role of government.
This conclusion section is a big thing we have to think about for the future, regardless of the NYPost story’s truth. A bipartisan consensus in government wants to regulate, the tech sector wants the same, but that impetus looks like a bad idea. Whatever the trajectory of this movement was before the Post story, it’s moving much faster now. I fear a rubicon was crossed this week, and where we go from here will impact the internet and whether we have a culture of free speech for a long time.
Links of the week
 Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution – Justice Neil Gorsuch, Time Magazine
Rupert Murdoch Predicts a Landslide Win for Biden: The Australian mogul is disgusted by Trump’s handling of COVID-19, remarking that the president is his own worst enemy and telling associates “people are ready for Sleepy Joe.” – Lachlan Cartwright, The Daily Beast
Exclusive: GOP Sen. Sasse says Trump ‘kisses dictators’ butts’ and mocks evangelicals – David M. Drucker, The Washington Examiner
Twitter’s Un-American Censorship of the New York Post – David Harsanyi, National Review
Sorority deletes tweet congratulating Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court nomination – Matt Lamb, The College Fix
Twitter Reverses Censorship Of House GOP Committee Webpage, Says It Was Blocked ‘In Error’ – Peter Hasson, The Daily Caller
Andrew Cuomo might be a sociopath: a book review – Tiana Lowe, The Washington Examiner
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!