Democracy & Elections

The Lawfare Podcast: How the Press and the Platforms Handled the Hunter Biden Laptop

Jen Patja, Evelyn Douek, Quinta Jurecic, Will Oremus
Thursday, April 7, 2022, 12:00 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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We’re taking a look back at one of the stranger stories about social media platforms and the role of the press in the last presidential election. In the weeks before the 2020 election, the New York Post published an “October Surprise”: a set of stories on the business and personal life of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, based on emails contained on a mysterious laptop. A great deal was questionable about the Post’s reporting, including to what extent the emails in question were real and how the tabloid had obtained them in the first place. The mainstream press was far more circumspect in reporting out the story—and meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook sharply restricted circulation of the Post’s stories on their platforms. 

It’s a year and half later. And the Washington Post just published a lengthy report verifying the authenticity of some of the emails on the mysterious laptop—though a lot still remains unclear about the incident. In light of this news, how should we understand Facebook and Twitter’s actions in 2020? 

Washington Post technology reporter Will Oremus weighed in on this question in his own reflection for the paper. This week on Arbiters of Truth, our series on the online information ecosystem, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic asked him on the show to discuss the story. Did the social media platforms go too far in limiting access to the New York Post’s reporting? How did the mainstream press deal with the incident? What have we learned from the failures of how the press and social media responded to information operations around the 2016 election, and what can we learn from how they behaved differently in 2020?

Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.
Evelyn Douek is an Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School on the topic of private and public regulation of online speech. Prior to attending HLS, Evelyn was an Associate (clerk) to the Honourable Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia. She received her LL.B. from UNSW Sydney, where she was Executive Editor of the UNSW Law Journal.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Will Oremus writes about the ideas, products and power struggles shaping the digital world for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2021, he spent eight years as Slate's senior technology writer and two years as a senior writer for OneZero at Medium.

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