A Trump-tied newspaper floats dubious accusations. Will others bite?
Imagine: three weeks before a national election, a newspaper with ties to the incumbent publishes emails purporting to be from the son of the challenger in the race. The news outlet makes no attempt to verify the authenticity of the emails, which, even if genuine, do not actually show wrongdoing, so the outlet insinuates wrongdoing without evidence. If you heard about it happening in Eastern Europe you would dismiss it as an obvious case of political information warfare. But what happens when the election is the U.S. presidential race and the incumbent is Donald Trump?
On Wednesday, cybersecurity professionals, disinformation experts, and lawmakers urged journalists to be careful in their coverage of a “bombshell” New York Post story aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The Post story claims that newly discovered emails show — in the face of widely available evidence to the contrary — that Hunter Biden helped persuade his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to push Ukraine to fire prosecutor Viktor Shokin for anti-corruption efforts. In fact, Biden sought Shokin’s firing because the Ukrainian was blocking anti-corruption efforts.
The provenance of the emails themselves is, to put it mildly, dubious. The Post story states that they come from a water-damaged 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 owner made a copy of the hard drive, turned the computer over to the FBI, but then inexplicably gave copies of his client’s files to Robert Costello, a lawyer for Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor-turned-Trump booster. The owner of the laptop never returned to retrieve it, according to the Post.
Even if that remarkable series of events were true and the emails were real, they only suggest that Joe Biden may have agreed to meet one of Hunter Biden’s business partners. They don’t reveal actual wrongdoing.
The Post story also omits key details, including that Giuliani has acknowledged working closely with Andriy Derkach, a Kremlin ally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for pushing disinformation intended to sway the 2020 election. It omits that the gas company in question was recently attacked by the same Russian, state-backed hacking team that stole emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016. It does not mention recent intelligence community assessments that Russia is still attempting to influence the U.S. presidential election to the benefit of Donald Trump.
Disinformation watchers on Wednesday were quick to point out the deeply problematic nature of the story and urge journalists and news outlets to be careful in how they covered it.
Peter Singer, a strategist at New America and the co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, a book about disinformation, tweeted: “as I read stories like this, it makes me reflect on what some in media (especially on security beat) have learned from 1) the experience of being an unintentional player in info ops and 2) the perils of #bothsides equivalence.”
Kyle Cheney, a congressional reporter for Politico, tweeted, “The 'smoking gun' email in the NY Post story — even if it is authentic, given the massive red flags — doesn't actually say what the story says it does.”
Again, stipulating that the suspect email is real, there's literally nothing in it that says Joe Biden met with a Burisma adviser.— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) October 14, 2020
"The opportunity to meet," may just as easily have meant Hunter promised a meeting in the future that may never have occurred.
Marc Ambinder, a security expert in residence with the University of Southern California Annenberg School, pointed out that that chain of events had all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation operation.
- mysterious circumstances (which gin up conspiratorial thinking)— Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder) October 14, 2020
- deniability (witnesses can’t remember key facts about the chain of custody of the information)
- no metadata (can’t verify emails)
- a gun ... with no smoke (would be too obvious)
- a willing media vector
John Scott-Railton with the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab project highlighted a thread on the subject by cybersecurity researcher Thomas Rid, author of Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation And Political Warfare. “Every journalist should read this thread: Critical advice on vetting of questionable stories that involve emails,” said Railton.
Rid’s thread picks apart the story and urges “journalists considering writing about this toxic story: don't—unless you can independently verify more details. And even if you can verify something, acknowledge the possibility of disinformation up-front, especially against the backdrop of 2016. Not doing so is bad practice.”
CAUTION ADVISED with this morning's Burisma-Biden E-mail story. For several reasons. pic.twitter.com/61GEAhZZop— Thomas Rid (@RidT) October 14, 2020
Some hopeful signs emerged Wednesday to show that tactics that amplified disinformation in 2016 might fail in 2020. Facebook, whose founder and CEO has said that his platform cannot be the arbiter of true or false information, is making an exception for the Post story.
Andy Stone, a policy communications manager at Facebook, tweeted. “While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear [sic] that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.”
While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 14, 2020
Twitter made similar moves to slow the spread, affixing a disclosure to the article and preventing its sharing. But these actions also brought more attention to it. Sohrab Ahmari, an op-ed editor for the Post, called it “digital civil war.”
This is a Big Tech information coup. This is digital civil war.— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) October 14, 2020
I, an editor at The New York Post, one of the nation’s largest papers by circulation, can’t post one of our own stories that details corruption by a major-party presidential candidate, Biden. pic.twitter.com/BKNQmAG19H
The article’s primary value to the public, thus, is as a teachable moment for journalists unsure how to cover hack-and-leak scandals. A handful of newsrooms are trying to become a bit smarter than was the norm in 2016. Washington Post editor Marty Baron recently presented his newsroom with a list of “principles for covering potential hacked or leaked material ahead of the election.” Number One:
“Before reporting on the release of hacked or leaked information, there should be a conversation with senior editors about the newsworthiness of the information, its authenticity and whether we can determine its provenance. Our emphasis should be on making a sound and well-considered decision—not on speed. We should resist the instinct to post a story simply because a competitor has done so.”
News outlets remain vulnerable to the disinformation trap, as shown by a recent article from Jen Schwartz, a senior features editor at Scientific American. Schwartz describes an exercise she participated in recently. Some 70 journalists, students, and others participated in the event, which sought to show how newsrooms might cover a crisis, like an active shooter, on election day. Schwartz describes how she was able to steer her colleagues’ coverage and attention toward unverifiable rumors, essentially sowing chaos. “By taking up the same arms as the outrage machine, we would become them,” she writes.