Over the weekend, the release of documents related to Twitter’s handling in October 2020 of reports on the abandoned laptop belonging to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden caused a flurry of attention. The documents, leaked by Twitter’s right-leaning new owner Elon Musk to a handful of journalists, were posted by Substack writer Matt Taibbi and branded “The Twitter Files,” in an attempt to evoke past scoops like the Pentagon Papers.
To many on the right — and to leftist anti-establishment gadflies like Taibbi — the documents prove collusion between tech platforms and Democratic power structures to cover up a Biden scandal. Donald Trump quickly made it a pretext to cry election-stealing and call for a coup (yet again). But far more reasonable people see the “Twitter Files” as evidence of bias and political favoritism by Twitter higher-ups.
I think left-wing bias and groupthink are real problems both in the mainstream media and on big-tech platforms. But this particular “scandal” is little more than pointless red meat for the right-wing base.
The laptop saga is too long and messy to be quickly recapped, but basically: Team Trump improbably got its hands on a laptop the junior Biden, a troubled man with drug issues, allegedly abandoned at a repair shop. Emails and messages related to Hunter Biden’s past business dealings in Ukraine, where he leveraged his father’s name, were touted as proving that Joe Biden was implicated in corruption. They didn’t. Because this happened shortly before the 2020 election, many intelligence officials suspected a Russian hack-and-leak operation. As a result, Twitter initially disabled links to a New York Post story about the laptop and suspended accounts (including the Post’s) that tweeted it. That decision was reversed a day later, and then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized.
As Taibbi admits, the internal Twitter communications he released show no evidence of political pressure; the only sitting Democratic politician who talked to Twitter executives about the controversial story link, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), opposed the restrictions as a matter of free speech. Yes, Biden campaign staffers — who were not in government — sometimes contacted Twitter about taking down questionable content (in this case, mostly photos and links to nude photos and sex videos from the laptop). Trump White House staff also made such requests.
That Twitter’s temporary curbs on disseminating the laptop story affected the election is highly unlikely. More important was the decision of most mainstream media not to treat the story as a big scandal — partly because of skittishness about repeating the experience of 2016, when reports on Hillary Clinton's email scandals which ultimately turned out to be nothingburgers may have cost Clinton the victory.
In my view, the media made the right call, since the laptop saga is another nothingburger. The right-wing “smoking gun” narrative relied on the false claim that in 2016, Joe Biden bullied Ukraine into firing a chief prosecutor to thwart a corruption investigation that threatened Hunter Biden. In fact, the pressure to fire the prosecutor was applied at the behest of the Obama administration because he was not doing enough to investigate corruption; similar pressures came from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Ultimately, the “Twitter Files” will do little more than stoke the grievances of Trump supporters and others on the right who believe they are oppressed by a left-wing “Big Tech” and media cabal, and see proof of such conspiracy in the Musk/Taibbi releases. A big scoop on corruption? More like the culture wars at their worst.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.