Elon Musk, shown here in 2020, helped fuel right-wing paranoia with the false claim that the government suppressed an anti-Biden story during the election that year. zz/Wil R/STAR MAX/IPx/APFight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.
Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter is written by David twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, book, television, podcast, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out. And please also check out David’s new New York Times bestseller: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy.
Russian denialism is the original sin of the Trump era. In 2016, Vladimir Putin attacked the US election. This has been documented by Democratic and Republican congressional investigations, Robert Mueller, the US intelligence committee, and independent cybersecurity experts. The assault was mounted to help Donald Trump win the presidency. And we saw it with our own eyes, as cyber-pilfered documents were released by WikiLeaks, first to derail the Democrats’ convention and then in the final weeks of the general election to hamper Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Yet Trump both denied Moscow’s assault was real—which aided and abetted the Russian operation by providing cover for it—and sought to benefit from it, as detailed in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report released two years ago when Republicans controlled the Senate. That report also shockingly revealed there was a “direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services” while Moscow was clandestinely endeavoring to elect Trump president.
Trump and his allies engaged in a profound betrayal of the United States to gain the White House, assisting an act of war mounted by a foreign adversary. As the Senate report put it, “The Trump campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian interference effort.” After Trump’s narrow victory, he and his comrades in the GOP and right-wing media continued to deny Putin’s attack—calling it a hoax—to hide his treachery and erase the dark stain on his presidency.
This effort begot numerous phony scandals—such as Spygate (the false claim that the Obama administration spied on Trump) and Ukraine-gate (the baseless assertion that Ukraine, not Russia, was somehow responsible for the hack of the Democratic Party servers)—and an obsessive focus on problems with the Steele dossier and its misuse by the FBI to obtain a surveillance warrant on one former Trump campaign adviser. Anything to deflect from the key issue: Trump reached the White House partly due to a clandestine Russian operation he had assisted and even encouraged. To a large extent, this grand disinformation campaign succeeded. The issue eventually receded and played little, if any role, in the 2020 election.
Why bring this up now? Because Trump-Russia denialism is at the heart of the right’s latest attempt to cook up another sham scandal to tar President Joe Biden and bolster Trump’s dangerous and fraudulent charge that the 2020 election was stolen from him. This campaign is being enabled by the wealthiest person in the world, Elon Musk, and, worse, it is being exploited by Trump to call for the “termination” of the US Constitution.
On Friday afternoon, Musk made a surprise announcement: Within hours, Twitter would feature a report on how the social media site had handled the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop in October 2020. It would tell us, Musk promised, what “really happened with the Hunter Biden story suppression by Twitter.”
Back then, the New York Post published a supposed bombshell report revealing that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s chief henchman, had come into possession of the contents of a laptop previously owned by Biden’s son and that the computer supposedly contained information proving the unfounded allegation that Biden, as vice president, had pushed for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Hunter and Burisma, an Ukrainian energy company of which the younger Biden was a board member. This posed a challenge for news organizations and social media outlets. The story might be a Watergate-sized scoop that could undo Biden’s presidential campaign. Then again, it might be a disinformation operation being facilitated or carried out by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing outlet. Should the story be amplified? Linked to? Cited? Twitter blocked its users from tweeting a link to the New York Post article and tagged it as “hacked material.” The company suspended the newspaper’s Twitter account for several days. Yoel Roth, then Twitter’s chief for trust and safety, recently stated that Twitter took these steps because it could not verify the story.
Ever since, Trumpers and right-wingers have howled that the suppression of the New York Post story was the result of a diabolical plot to protect Biden, with the culprits being the Deep State, the liberal media, and other usual suspects. Some insist that Trump lost—though he didn’t really lose, right?—because this October Surprise was smothered. And Musk, who has become an ally of the alt-right, seems to have bought into this conspiracism.
After Musk acquired Twitter, he decided to revisit this episode. He turned over Twitter’s internal records to Matt Taibbi to report on what had occurred within Twitter regarding the Biden laptop. Taibbi was both an odd and predictable choice. An ex-lefty journalist with a checkered past, Taibbi, along with his pal Glenn Greenwald, has been for years a Trump-Russia denialist, dismissing all talk of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians as a hoax. Beyond that, he and Greenwald have forged a narrative in which cancel culture and the flaws of liberal journalists are far more important than Trump’s authoritarian threat to the nation, his transfer of wealth to the rich (via loaded tax cuts), his mismanagement of the Covid pandemic (which led to the preventable deaths of probably hundreds of thousands of Americans), his personal corruption (Saudi money, anyone?), his climate denialism, his incitement of political violence, his effort to overturn an election, or anything else. Curiously, Taibbi, who poses as a champion of transparency and journalistic ethics and a foe of mainstream media hypocrisy and its alleged collusion with corporate and government forces, noted in his Substack newsletter that he had agreed to certain “conditions” to gain access to the Twitter material. Yet he did not identify these conditions. What deal did he cut with Musk?
On Friday night, Taibbi, citing those internal documents, posted a long Twitter thread that reported on how Twitter had dealt with the Biden laptop story. But the thread did not reveal a massive conspiracy. It showed Twitter employees scrambling to manage a tough issue. As New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo noted, the thread amounted to a “half dozen screenshots of content moderation policy executives earnestly debating content moderation policy.”
Though Musk, in a tweet, claimed Taibbi’s report showed “government involvement in censoring people on Twitter,” that was not the case. No one in the government had pushed Twitter to shut down the laptop story. The Biden campaign—which was not a government entity—did ask Twitter to block the sharing of dick pics from the laptop, a request in line with Twitter’s rules and reportedly honored. According to Taibbi’s thread, in 2020 the Trump White House also asked Twitter to repress material, and the company assented. Hardly evidence that Twitter was covertly plotting with the Biden camp to crush Trump.
Musk demonstrated tremendous ignorance and bad faith. In response to a Taibbi tweet citing a Twitter document saying that requests from the “Biden team” were “handled,” Musk tweeted, “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” As conservative (non-Trumper) writer David French pointed out, “Biden was not president in 2020, and therefore there was no government involvement in his campaign’s requests. The First Amendment is not implicated when only private actors are involved.” Kevin Fox, a tech developer, put it this way: “A political campaign sends Twitter a list of tweets that refer to the campaign and violate Twitter’s terms of service and Twitter takes them down. This is what Elon Musk says tonight is a ‘blatant violation of the 1st Amendment’, as he willfully misrepresents the facts.”
The bottom-line: The Taibbi thread showed no conspiracy, just a hot mess. Twitter employees were in a difficult situation, striving to figure out what to do about the laptop article.
Here’s where Trump-Russia denialism comes in.
One reason why folks at Twitter and elsewhere were worried about the authenticity of the laptop story was the 2016 election. The Russians then had used American social media and news outfits to advance their operation against the Clinton campaign. Russian cyber operatives had clandestinely exploited Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread messages to sow political discord in the United States and assist Trump. And American media organizations eagerly ran anti-Clinton stories based on the material hacked by the Russians and released by WikiLeaks, and they mostly ignored the larger story that the American political system was under attack from Moscow. Consequently and justifiably, media companies and tech firms in 2020 did not want to become, once again, unwitting accomplices of a Russia disinformation campaign—and, at the time of the New York Post story, one was underway.
Indeed, Twitter and others had good reason to be suspicious about the Hunter Biden story, given its origins. For over a year, Giuliani and other Trumpers had been trying to gin up a scandal about Biden and Ukraine. As part of this endeavor, Giuliani had been working with a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Andriy Derkach, who was promoting the unproven allegation Biden had improperly forced the firing of that Ukrainian prosecutor to help Hunter and Burisma. And Derkach was bad news.
Weeks before the laptop story, the US Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Derkach—the son of a former KGB official—and dubbed him “an active Russian agent for over a decade.” It was the Trump administration that declared Derkach was one of a group of “Russia-linked election interference actors.” The Treasury said he had maintained “close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services” and had “directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 US presidential election.” Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s own Treasury secretary, proclaimed, “Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world.” Previously, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had told Congress that Derkach was “spreading claims about corruption” as part of the Kremlin’s effort to undermine Biden’s campaign.
Here was yet another Russian attack on a US election, and Giuliani was in league with one of its perps. This was all public information when the laptop story broke. And, as the New York Post reported, Giuliani had a starring role in this caper, for he was the source who had shared the laptop with the New York Post. Of course, this rendered the whole thing suspect. Plus, the New York Post story presented as fact the debunked allegation that Biden had corruptly pushed to fire the prosecutor to aid his son and Burisma. (I went into all the details when the New York Post article first appeared.) So Murdoch’s propaganda outfit was citing the laptop to back up the Russia-pushed Ukrainian bunk. This story—through Giuliani—was directly connected to a Kremlin disinformation operation—which, I repeat, had been identified by the Trump administration.
Moscow was at it again, according to Trump’s own appointees. Thus, there was cause to wonder about this Giuliani-linked laptop story and to be cautious about spreading it. Perhaps Twitter made the wrong call. But it was not pressured by the Deep State or anyone else to do so. At the time, Russia was scheming to discredit Biden, and Giuliani was colluding with this endeavor. Whether the laptop was real or not—whether the data on it could be trusted or not—the New York Post was eagerly using it to bolster a false narrative being promoted by a Russian agent. That’s what made the story problematic. Even today, there’s still a question about what can and cannot be authenticated on the Biden laptop, as the Washington Post recently reported. (The question of whether Hunter Biden had traded on his father’s position as veep to enrich himself is definitely a legitimate subject for journalists—as is Jared Kushner’s recent acquisition of $2 billion in funding from the Saudis. But in this episode, the main and unproven charge was that Joe Biden had allegedly abused his power.)
Had the nation fully accepted the reality of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and had the Trump administration’s own conclusion that Putin in 2020 was once more trying to assist Trump via information warfare been widely recognized (and acknowledged by Trump and his loyalists), the New York Post story would have been clearly seen for what it mainly was: an amplification of Moscow’s anti-Biden skullduggery. Context matters. This story did not appear out of the blue. Yet the Trump-Russia denialism of 2016 had fostered an atmosphere in which talk of Russian interference was routinely dismissed by the right—and by such Russian hoax hoaxers as Taibbi and Greenwald. Giuliani was publicly working in the open with a Russian agent in this operation, and that didn’t spark a full-scale scandal.
What Twitter did at the time, right or wrong, was not as significant as the joint Russia-Giuliani operation. Yet Trump World denizens have focused on the handling of the New York Post story to concoct yet another deflective scandal. Musk and Taibbi have played right into their hands. I saw this personally in recent days as a swarm of right-wing trolls and bots (Russian?) on Twitter assailed me and others who questioned Twittergate. They angrily insisted that Taibbi’s thread confirmed that Big Tech, the Deep State, and the media were all part of a villainous cabal that had sinisterly manipulated the 2020 election and denied Trump reelection. (Many noted that I was heading for the hoosegow.) Their rage and paranoia had been fed by Musk and Taibbi. Some even claimed this was more proof that the Trump-Russia scandal had been a con. Fake news.
Republicans, no surprise, leaped to embrace this new bogus scandal. GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy exclaimed, “We’re learning in real-time how Twitter colluded to silence the truth about Hunter Biden’s laptop just days before the 2020 presidential election.” He suggested House Republicans would launch an investigation once they take over in January. Expect it to get the full Benghazi treatment.
How did Trump respond to Taibbi’s nothingburger? In a social media post, The Former Guy insisted it revealed “MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD AND DECEPTION.” He called for throwing out the 2020 election results and noted that “fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination” of the US Constitution. He essentially asserted he should now be installed as president. Or, perhaps more accurately, dictator.
This is what Musk and Taibbi—and their enablers—wreaked: a former president and current presidential candidate exploiting their alt-right kowtowing to call for the suspension of constitutional governance. What’s next? A call for armed resistance? Good work, fellas. This is exactly what the Russians want: division-driven politics in the United States that covers up their repeated efforts to boost a bigoted, narcissistic, and chaos-fomenting authoritarian. In his few short weeks as the uber-man of Twitter, red-pilled Musk has done much damage to the site and its brand. Advertisers are fleeing, trolls and bots are being empowered, and racists, antisemites, and Nazis have been welcomed back online. Moreover, Musk has now fueled the irrational paranoia of far-right extremists and bolstered support for Trump’s dangerous claims that he and his followers are victims of nefarious and evil schemers. Musk’s machinations may be doing more than breaking Twitter. They are contributing to the breaking of the nation.
Note to Readers: Speaking of Twitter, like many users, I’ve formulated an exit strategy. Just in case. You can find me at these two other social media sites now: At Post.News, I’m @davidcorn, and you can look me up at Mastodon at mastodon.social/@DavidCorn. As always, you can also follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/davidcorndc. Due to Facebook’s censorious algorithms, you usually won’t get my updated posts in your feed, unless you take additional steps to receive them. But you can always check out that page by going to it directly. As for Twitter, I will keep you posted on my thoughts regarding remaining on the site.