The Hunter Biden Laptop Story Makes Another Case Against ‘Misinformation’ Bans
Another example of how combating “misinformation” may obscure the truth. It’s become popular in certain political and media circles to say social media must clamp down harder on false information. Some lawmakers have even threatened tech companies with severe consequences for failing to stop the spread of fake news. But the idea that these companies could ever do this adequately is laughable—something driven home by new reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Back in October 2020, the New York Post first reported on the laptop—allegedly left by President Joe Biden’s son at a computer repair shop and containing emails about Hunter’s work for Ukrainian energy company Burisma. The emails suggested Burisma was paying Hunter in order to get access to his dad.
The story was quickly panned by prestige media and denounced by Democrats, who characterized it as an attempt to make then-candidate Joe Biden look bad and possibly another attempt by Russians to influence a U.S. presidential election. Even mentioning it to criticize it was frowned upon by some on the left.
This narrative was so pervasive and persuasive that Facebook temporarily limited distribution of the Post story and Twitter briefly blocked users from sharing it entirely.
Now, The New York Times—which was critical of the Post story when it came out—has published a piece backing up many of the Post‘s initial assertions. The story details the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into Hunter Biden for possible violations of laws surrounding taxes, foreign lobbying, and money laundering.
Federal prosecutors “had examined emails…from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop,” the Times reports, before going on to describe the contents of some of these emails. These emails “were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation,” it says.
So: A story that initially seemed dubious turned out to have been true all along.
What can we take from this?
I don’t think the moral is that everyone was wrong to question the Post‘s reporting. (“There were reasons to be skeptical of the Post‘s story,” as Reason‘s Jacob Sullum noted yesterday.) But the impetus to discourage or ban all discussion or amplification of it was wrong.
In this case, it led to social media companies actually obscuring the truth in the name of combating misinformation. And it discouraged other media outlets from looking into the Post‘s allegations in a serious manner. In short, it helped keep people in the dark about Biden’s son’s business dealings.
The whole fiasco has a similar structure to the lab leak theory news cycle. The idea that COVID-19 originated not in a Wuhan wet market but a virus research laboratory nearby was initially decried by respectable sources as right-wing propaganda. Again, social media companies were encouraged to—or in some cases did—limit stories suggesting a lab leak had launched the pandemic. Then, months down the road, the lab leak hypothesis was vindicated—not necessarily as true (we’ll probably never know) but as something at least plausible.
In both cases, stories were initially met with skepticism (which is fine), from which folks quickly leaped to calling them misinformation and suggesting they should be off limits to read or share (not fine). In both cases, the stories turned out to have much more credibility than originally thought.
Companies like Twitter and Facebook are of course private actors that can choose what sorts of information to allow or block. But in these cases, social media companies weren’t just acting in a vacuum but under incessant (and ongoing) threats of punishment by the government if they didn’t stop the spread of misinformation.
Misinformation bans don’t work for many reasons, but a main one is that sometimes the truth is hard to determine. The real moral of the story here seems to be that letting politicians, pundits, media outlets, or tech executives decide the contours of the truth is likely to backfire.
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