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Mon 30 November 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on the controversy surrounding a laptop that some believe is evidence of corruption and others proof of more Kremlin interference

There are fresh claims of Russian interference in the American election after reports of controversial emails that allegedly show the son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden may have used his father’s position for political leverage.

The saga began to unfold when a massive trove of documents and emails were allegedly recovered from a laptop computer given to a repair shop in Delaware in April 2019. The computer was never collected by its owner, but the store owner made a copy of the hard drive.

According to the New York Post, which obtained copies of the emails, Hunter Biden – son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden – appeared to be using his father’s political position to help a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. 

In one email from 2015, Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, thanked Hunter for giving him the opportunity to meet his father, who was vice-president at the time. Less than a year later, the former vice-president pressured Government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company. Previous allegations of Biden’s wrongdoing have been since been said to be unfounded. The New York Post further claimed the email thanking Hunter came a year after another email when Pozharskyi asked Hunter how he could use his “influence” on the company’s behalf. Hunter joined the Burisma board in 2014 with a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

Other documents taken from the computer are said to indicate that Hunter tried to secure lucrative deals involving China. The Post also claims there was a 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 other sexually explicit images.

The emails were all given to the New York Post by President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. According to the paper, Giuliani obtained the information after a repairman working at the Delaware-based store copied the computer’s hard drive and shared it with an associate of Giuliani’s, as well as the FBI.

None of the documents have been verified as genuine and as Byline Times has previously reported, there is little evidence of corruption involving Hunter. This still hasn’t stopped Donald Trump and his allies from jumping on the revelations. The president has said they prove his political rival abused his position as vice president and he lied when he claimed he has “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings”. The Biden campaign meanwhile, has dismissed the story as false and claimed the suggestion Biden met with Pozharskyi in 2015 cannot be true as there is no record of it on his schedule.


Russian Disinformation Campaign

Comparisons have since been drawn to the 2016 election when Russian hackers were accused of dumping emails online relating to Hilary Clinton’s campaign. Three days after the New York Post story, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff described the revelations as a “smear on Joe Biden” which has “come from the Kremlin”. This was backed by the former director of National Intelligence James Clapper who called the story “textbook Russian tradecraft at work”. 

“The Russians have analysed the target, they understand that the president and his enablers crave dirt on vice-president Biden whether it is real or contrived, it doesn’t matter to them and so all of a sudden two and half weeks before the election, this laptop appears somehow,” he said. This led to Biden himself indicating his campaign is embracing the Russia narrative, telling reporters “the vast majority of intelligence people” have said there is no truth in the allegations being made against his son. 

However, the current Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliff was interviewed on Fox News on 19 October and said the intelligence community is being “politicised”. 

Referring to the comments made by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Ratcliff said there is “no intelligence that supports” claims the story has come from Russia. “We have shared no intelligence with chairman Schiff or any other member of congress that Hunter Biden’s laptop is part of some Russian disinformation campaign,” he added. “It’s simply not true.”

He claimed Schiff is “using the intelligence community, or attempting to use the intelligence community to say, there’s nothing to see here”. He added: “Hunter Biden’s laptop is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign. And I think it’s clear that the American people know that. The intelligence community has not been involved with Hunter Biden’s laptop. Hunter Biden is a US person, and he would be subject to any investigation regarding fraud, or corruption would be, rightfully, the jurisdiction of the FBI.”

Jill C. Tyson, the FBI Assistant Director for Congressional Affairs, later said in a letter Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson that “we have nothing to add” to the comments made by Ratcliff.


Censorship Reignites Debate over Role of Social Media

Adding to the controversy surrounding the Biden story was the kneejerk reaction from social media giants Twitter and Facebook. In the wake of the New York Post’s original story, the two firms prevented users from sharing the story. Twitter claimed it violated its “hacked materials” policy while Facebook placed restrictions, claiming it is part of the company’s “standard process” to reduce the spread of “misinformation”.

The unprecedented move was slammed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz who said “never before have we seen the censorship of a major outlet’s reporting”. Cruz along with 11 other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee later ordered Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to testify about their handling of the story.

Facebook and Twitter became caught up in the 2016 election controversy when they were slow to react to Russian disinformation campaigns. Facebook, in particular, was singled out by the US Justice Department when 13 Russians and three companies were charged for taking part in a scheme aimed at influencing the election.

Shortly before the New York Post published their story on the emails, Biden published an open letter on his website accusing Facebook of failing to make meaningful changes. He said the company allowed President Trump to “spread fear and misleading information about voting” and had compromised a means of holding power to account. “We call for clear rules — applied to everyone, including Donald Trump,” he added.

But rather than appear as though they have addressed the misinformation problem and introduced rules that are “applied to everyone”, Twitter and Facebook have found themselves facing accusations that they are politically biased toward the Biden campaign. Republican Steve Scalise went as far as to suggest collusion between them. 

“This is a direct act of election interference,” he said. “Joe Biden sat by and let it happen. We ask did anyone at Twitter communicate with the Biden campaign? Did the Joe Biden campaign have any communications with Twitter, Facebook?” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said blocking the article without giving users any context was “unacceptable” and admitted that communication around his company’s actions “was not great”.


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