For years, conspiracy theorists have baselessly tried to link Democrats to sex trafficking, a tactic straight out of Russian-style disinformation campaigns, which frequently tar political opponents as sexual deviants. Republicans have also been eager to dig up dirt about the Bidens, specifically Hunter Biden, the 50-year-old chaotic fail-son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Now, these combustible elements have been tossed into the crucible of the 2020 election, and are exploding across social media, thanks to a widely contested New York Post story that was published about Hunter Biden last week — and a far-right internet contingent set on twisting those thin allegations into fully fabricated disinformation.

The Post story contains a screengrab of an email purporting to show evidence of a meeting that Hunter Biden set up between his father and an executive at a Ukrainian energy firm. The email supposedly comes from a MacBook Pro that was dropped off at a Delaware repair shop in 2019. As alleged by the Post, the repair shop owner made a copy of the hard drive and supplied it to an attorney for Trump crony Rudy Giuliani. (It should be noted that Giuliani spearheaded a drive to dig up dirt on the Bidens, part of a campaign so shady that it ultimately got the president impeached.)

The New York Post story is dubious, to say the very least. Many questions have been raised about its sourcing (not to mention the timing of its publication weeks before the election), the emails published in the story are unverified, and more than 50 former intelligence officials have signed a letter stating their belief the story is part of a foreign disinformation campaign. Moreover, the Delaware repair shop owner, a Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist, told reporters that he is “legally blind” and did not even see who dropped off the alleged laptop, only believing it to be Hunter’s because it allegedly had a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation.

The Biden campaign has also steadfastly refuted the allegations, saying that it reviewed the Vice President’s schedule and no such meeting ever took place. “Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as ‘not legitimate’ and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing,” said campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates.

Despite the glaring issues with the story, however, those on the right have been salivating over its claims, spinning them off into even more extreme and defamatory conspiracy theories. One of these theories stems from what the New York Post alleges is a photo of a subpoena issued for Biden’s laptop, bearing what appears to be the signature of an FBI agent named Joshua Wilson, the same name as an agent who has in the past investigated child pornography cases. It is not clear whether the Joshua Wilson whose signature appears to be on the subpoena is the same agent, or if there are multiple FBI agents named Joshua Wilson. But that did not stop many on the fringe message board 4chan to speculate, based on zero evidence, that Hunter Biden’s laptop contained child pornography.

On October 18th, the conspiracy theory made its way from the dark corners of the internet to Fox News, where anchor Maria Bartiromo regurgitated it to her guest, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WIS.), urging him to make a connection between Wilson’s signature and Hunter Biden. “Connect the dots,” Bartiromo urged her guest, Johnson, who played along, tantalizing Fox News viewers by sowing the seeds of mistruth: “I don’t want to speculate other than to say… I’ve heard all kinds of things that I think will probably be revealed over the next few days. There’s a treasure trove of emails, and video, and pictures,” Johnson said.

Late-night host Seth Meyers tore apart Bartiromo and Johnson on his show the following day, referring to the baseless conspiracy theorizing as “Pizzagate all over again” with right-wing figures doing “a search-and-replace with ‘Hunter Biden’ in for ‘Hillary Clinton.’” But that hasn’t stopped the unsubstantiated theory from circulating all over the internet, in no small part thanks to platforms’ hesitancy to censor it.

The claim has made its way around Facebook and Twitter, with one video reposted from the far-right website InfoWars garnering more than 174,000 views on Facebook. Similar posts are still circulating on Facebook right-wing groups and have a combined tens of thousands of shares, according to CrowdTangle data.

A tweet making unsubstantiated claims that Hunter’s alleged laptop contained child pornography has garnered more than 40,000 shares as of press time. The tweet was posted by a prominent conservative commentator who has pushed such misinformation as that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting was committed by ISIS.

The tweet, which garnered its author more than 25,000 new followers, was widely shared by pro-Trump groups on Facebook and Reddit, according to CrowdTangle data. But it has been shared most often on Twitter, including signal boosts from such prominent right-wing influencers as Jim Hoft of the Gateway Pundit, and self-described “Trumpublican” influencer Melissa Tate, who have more than 321,000 and 454,000 followers, respectively.

The smears swirling around Hunter Biden are “exactly the sort of thing you’d expect on October 15th, three weeks before a national election,” says Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University. Linvill reiterated that the claim “is just like the Podesta emails of 2016,” which gave rise to Pizzagate, the precursor to QAnon, the unfounded conspiracy theory that there is a deep state cabal of prominent leftists involved in a pedophilia ring.

As Rolling Stone has previously reported, accusing political rivals of pedophilia is an age-old tool in the far-right playbook. It is also a common tactic leveled against opponents to Putin’s regime in Russia. “This particular claim is consistent with ongoing narratives that swirl around QAnon,” says Linvill. “It’s tailor-made to engage with a very particular subset of the social media community.”

It has since resurfaced in the lead-up to the 2020 election, with the most prominent example being the #SaveTheChildren anti-child trafficking campaign last summer, which was co-opted by QAnon believers. Vice President Biden has also been subject to such vile and unfounded claims, which have been regurgitated by those in the president’s immediate sphere, including Donald Trump, Jr. “It’s a new twist on the tactic borne out of the aftermath of the Satanic Panic that has become part of our mainstream political discourse, and that is really terrifying,” Angelo Carusone, CEO and president of Media Matters for America, previously told Rolling Stone. 

The proliferation of such utterly unfounded claims about Hunter Biden have additional weight given that Twitter and Facebook have vowed to crack down on election disinformation in the wake of the 2016 election, when platforms unsuccessfully attempted to curb Russian disinformation campaigns. Earlier this month, Twitter revamped some of its features to attempt to combat the spread of disinformation, including adding a warning label to election-related content it had flagged as false before users attempted to share it. Facebook has also added fact-check labels to election-related disinformation, including in some cases from the president himself.

After the Post story was published last week, both Facebook and Twitter, in an apparent effort to right the wrongs of 2016, took action to limit its spread. Twitter initially blocked users from sharing the story on the grounds that it violated Twitter guidelines against publishing hacked materials, while Facebook limited its distribution pending third-party fact-check review. After conservatives cried censorship, Twitter backtracked on the decision and allowed users to share the link to the story, with CEO Jack Dorsey tweeting, “Our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great. And blocking URL sharing via tweet or DM with zero context as to why we’re blocking: unacceptable.”

Reactions to the platforms’ treatment of the Hunter Biden story were mixed. While some tech pundits commended Facebook and Twitter for taking action to avoid the mistakes of the past, others interpreted them as a hollow PR gesture intended to stave off criticism while failing to address the issues central to both platforms. “Suppressing a lousy piece of journalism only reinforces the unprecedented power these platforms have. The underlying problem is the same now as it was in 2016: These companies have far too much power over the way that information is distributed,” the New Republic‘s Alex Shephard wrote.

In response to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment regarding the removal of Hunter Biden conspiracy theories, Twitter said that it would take action on tweets with a high propensity for public harm, but that it would not be able to take action against all tweets with unverified claims. Twitter did not address a follow-up question as to whether baseless claims that the son of a presidential candidate is a pedophile constitutes content with a propensity for public harm. Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Linvill says that Twitter is likely “still smarting” about having to reverse course on its original decision regarding the New York Post story. “They may be hesitant to take action when there is argument that perhaps they should,” he says. At the end of the day, he says, “this illustrates the need for strong terms of service that are consistently enforced. Twitter and other platforms have been having trouble finding balance lately and this has led to inconsistencies. These inconsistencies lead to accusations of bias, and those accusations are bad for the platforms and probably for the rest of us as well.”

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