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Allegation on Biden prompts pushback from social media companies

  • >> Katie Glueck, Michael S Schmidt and Mike Isaac, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-15 13:38:44 BdST

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, visits St Ann's Church in Wilmington, Del, Oct 11, 2020. The Biden campaign on Wednesday, Oct 14, rejected a New York Post report that Biden had met with an adviser to the Ukrainian energy company associated with his son Hunter Biden, a claim based on material provided by Republican allies of President Donald Trump. Chang W Lee/The New York Times

The Biden campaign Wednesday rejected a New York Post report about Joe Biden and his son Hunter that the nation’s leading social media companies deemed so dubious that they limited access to the article on their platforms.

The report, appearing just three weeks before the election, was based on material provided by Republican allies of President Donald Trump who have tried for months to tarnish Biden over his son. It claimed that the elder Biden had met with an adviser to a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

A spokesman for the Biden campaign, Andrew Bates, said that Biden’s official schedules showed no meeting between Biden and the adviser, Vadym Pozharskyi.

“We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place,” Bates said.

The Post story cited an email Pozharskyi allegedly sent to Hunter Biden thanking him for “giving an opportunity to meet your father” and to spend “some time together.” The authenticity of the email correspondence cited by the Post could not be independently verified.

Hours after the Post published its article, Facebook said on Wednesday that it had decided to limit the distribution of the story on its platform so it could fact-check the claims. Twitter said it was blocking the article because it included people’s personal phone numbers and email addresses, which violated its privacy rules, and because the article violated its policy on hacked materials.

Facebook’s and Twitter’s actions immediately provoked strong reactions from Republicans that the social media platforms were censoring them, an outcry that grew louder later Wednesday when the Trump campaign said the personal account of the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, had been locked because she had posted the New York Post story. Sen Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, a staunch Trump ally, called Twitter’s action “despicable” and termed it “the real election interference.”

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been under fire from Trump and other Republicans for years for allegedly censoring their views. The companies, located in liberal Silicon Valley, have denied those claims.

Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings have been a subject of intense Republican focus over the last year, including his ties to a Ukrainian company, Burisma, while his father, as vice president, worked on Ukraine policy. Both Bidens have said that the two did not discuss Ukraine with each other. An investigation by Senate Republicans — and significant scrutiny of the issue over the last year — found no evidence that Biden, the former vice president, engaged in wrongdoing over his son’s business dealings.

Asked about the prospect of even a brief encounter with Pozharskyi, a Biden campaign official said that was “technically possible” but very unlikely. The official said that there was “no indication at all” that such an interaction had happened and that regardless, Biden would not have discussed anything tied to Burisma.

Trump, who trails Biden in many key battleground states, has struggled for months to negatively define Biden. The president has careened from making baseless attacks on Biden’s mental acuity to casting him as an enemy of law enforcement personnel and even of the suburbs.

Trump’s criticisms of Hunter Biden, however, have been a constant throughout the election cycle and usually featured discredited claims about the elder Biden’s activities. Trump’s debate-stage attack last month on Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction was one of the most viciously personal of the campaign. And Trump was impeached in connection with encouraging Ukraine’s leader to investigate Biden.

At a rally Wednesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, Trump opened his remarks by describing the Post article and making a string of unsubstantiated claims against Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, and he labelled the former vice president a “corrupt politician.”

The Post report described a circuitous and unusual path by which the newspaper had obtained the email correspondence that involved two of Trump’s staunchest allies: Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and a former New York City mayor, and Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser.

The article said the emails were part of a trove of material on a laptop computer that was dropped off for repairs at a shop in Delaware, Biden’s home state, and never retrieved. It said the store owner had made a copy of the correspondence and provided it to the lawyer for Giuliani.

Bannon, who was arrested in August and charged with fraud, informed the Post about the hard drive, and on Sunday Giuliani — who has been accused this election cycle of taking information from Russian agents — provided a copy to the Post, the article said.

Bates, the Biden spokesman, said the Post had not asked the Biden campaign about “critical elements of this story.”

“They certainly never raised that Rudy Giuliani — whose discredited conspiracy theories and alliance with figures connected to Russian intelligence have been widely reported — claimed to have such materials,” he said in his statement.

The report raises a host of unanswered questions, beginning with whether the email alluding to a meeting is real, and if it is, what Pozharskyi was specifically referring to when he is said to have thanked Hunter Biden for the “opportunity” to meet and spend time with his father.

It is also unclear who dropped off the laptop at the repair shop. The Post reported that the FBI had seized the computer and the hard drive in December but did not specify what the authorities might be investigating.

The article also does not explain any connection between the store owner and Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello, or why the owner would give a copy of the hard drive to him.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Costello said that someone he described as “a source” had sent an email to one of Giuliani’s companies in September, adding that he had damaging information on Hunter Biden. (Although Costello declined to identify the source, his description suggested it was the store owner.)

Costello said that he had called the person, who agreed to send him the hard drive by overnight shipping. In the weeks that followed, Costello examined its contents, which he said contained text messages, photos, videos and emails.

Initially, when no one came to retrieve the hard drive for 90 days, Costello said, the source examined the contents, believed they were troubling and then called the FBI.

After the documents failed to emerge in the Trump impeachment hearings, the source grew agitated and began reaching out to lawmakers who failed to return his messages, Costello said. It’s unclear why it would take over nine months, however, for the person to reach Giuliani in September.

Some security experts expressed scepticism about the provenance and authenticity of the emails.

The Times reported last January that Burisma had been hacked by the same Russian GRU unit that was one of two groups that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Last month, US intelligence analysts contacted several people with knowledge of the Burisma hack for further information after they had picked up chatter that stolen Burisma emails would be leaked in the form of an “October surprise.”

Among their chief concerns, according to people familiar with the discussions, was that the Burisma material would be leaked alongside forged materials in an attempt to hurt Biden’s candidacy — as Russian hackers did when they dumped real emails alongside forgeries ahead of the 2017 French elections — a slight twist on Russia’s 2016 playbook when they siphoned leaked DNC emails through fake personas on Twitter and WikiLeaks.

Facebook said that soon after the story was posted it noticed the controversy around the veracity of its claims and over how the Post had obtained the evidence. As the story circulated, the company said it had moved to tamp down its potential for virality.

In essence, it meant that Facebook would show fewer instances of shared posts featuring the story in users’ news feeds, the main way people view and share links and other stories across Facebook.

“I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners,” Andy Stone, a spokesman for the social media company, said in a tweet.

Although Trump and his allies have been attacking Biden over his son’s business dealings for many months, they do not appear to have dramatically changed how voters view Biden’s integrity.

In a Fox News poll conducted in October 2019, 48% of voters nationally said they thought Biden was honest and trustworthy. When voters were asked the same question in a Fox News poll in August, the share who held that view was the same: 48%.


© 2020 The New York Times Company