A year and a half ago, less than three weeks before the presidential election, the New York Post published a story about the recovery of a laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden, and a trove of personal emails and photographs allegedly found on it. Many were embarrassing; a few were interesting enough to become memes. (The most indelible—the authenticity of which I have not personally verified—is of Hunter smoking a cigarette in a bathtub.) The meat of the article was the claim that the younger Biden had traded inappropriately on his family name, up to the point of arranging meetings between his Ukrainian business associates and his father, while the latter was vice president.
President Donald Trump’s camp made the story out to be more than it was—Hunter Biden was already well known for invoking his family’s political fame to help him make money, and he denied the specific allegations of wrongdoing (though a broader investigation into his affairs has been ongoing for years, led by federal prosecutors in Delaware, working with the FBI and the IRS). The story’s claims about Joe Biden’s participation were weak (at best). It quickly came out that some of the Post’s own staff did not think that the paper had done enough to confirm the authenticity of the laptop. But the story was a lit match, and the national mood at the time was kerosene.
Trump was actively undermining democracy and pushing his supporters toward hysteria about online censorship. His party was gripped by QAnon, which holds at the center of its belief system the idea that the Democratic elite are sleazy and corrupt. The laptop was a gift to the paranoid and the disingenuous. Meanwhile, the other half of the country was gripped by the memory of 2016. What if voters were faced with an eleventh-hour red herring, another disaster like the James Comey letter? What if reporters fell for another trick from zany upstart “citizen journalists” with enormous follower counts—or, worse, Russia? And journalists who had spent four years telling themselves that they were the nation’s last defense against tyranny were, to put it as politely as I can, starting to appear a bit hysterical. By the way, there was still a pandemic. Enter flames.
To many members of the media and tech industries, the timing of the story felt suspicious, as did the fact that it came from Rudy Giuliani, a MAGA operative and one of the oddest people alive. Reporters recoiled from the story; columnists blasted the Post for publishing personally embarrassing information that was of tenuous public interest. Social-media companies also reacted instantly. Facebook limited the spread of the story while third-party fact-checkers reviewed it (but removed the limitation after a week). Twitter took the more dramatic action of blocking new shares of the link altogether, arguing that the story, which contained screenshots with unobscured email addresses and phone numbers, constituted a violation of its policy on doxxing (it reversed course after two days).
Some of the story turned out to be true, but not right away. The New York Times and The Washington Post were only recently able to verify many of the emails. And in the intervening months, many of the details about why journalists and tech companies acted the way they did have been forgotten, leaving behind only the impression, mostly on the right, that they “colluded” to keep Americans away from an authentic news story with political implications. The truth was more boring and possibly grimmer.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: This single water-damaged laptop represented an end point. Americans no longer had a method for coming to agreement about what was—in the most basic sense—going on. Eighteen months later, there’s nothing anyone could ever say about this laptop that would bring Americans into alignment about its significance and meaning, or about the culpability and agendas of those who have previously expressed opinions on it. In fact, if anything, things have gotten worse.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic co-hosted a conference with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, called “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” at which Hunter Biden’s laptop was a star of the show.
It came up in the very first Q&A session of the conference. A University of Chicago freshman and a senior editor of the campus’s right-wing publication (tagline: “Outthink the mob”) asked my colleague Anne Applebaum whether “the media acted inappropriately when they instantly dismissed Hunter Biden’s laptop as Russian disinformation.” The student was unsatisfied with Applebaum’s answer—that she didn’t think the laptop qualified as a major news story, disinformation or no—and later appeared on Fox News to say so. His tweet about the exchange, which incorrectly stated that Appelebaum had failed to answer the question, went viral. This kicked off a vitriolic and widespread campaign against Applebaum from the right, pushed by influencers including Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and multiple Fox News hosts; she was subjected to weeks of personal threats.
The laptop came up again the next day, first thing in the morning. A panel discussion titled “Politics as Usual or an Insidious Attack on Our Democracy?” took its premise from a November 2021 column by Ben Smith, then of The New York Times, in which he used the Biden laptop story to demonstrate how confusing the conversation about misinformation and disinformation had become. In dealing with the laptop, reporters were understandably wary of repeating the mistakes made regarding the WikiLeaks hack-and-dump operation before the 2016 election, which led to over-coverage of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which was ultimately inconsequential. That’s why many of them dismissed the story, or labeled it a new front in the information war. But many presidential election cycles have unearthed confusing, scandalous revelations requiring investigative journalism to verify or debunk them, Smith argued. Labeling this a problem of the social-media age, and focusing on mis- or disinformation as phenomena that can be corrected, hidden, or blocked at the platform level, is “a technocratic solution to a problem that’s as much about politics as technology,” he wrote. He reiterated much of this during the panel, saying that the laptop story had been mishandled by reporters and, “most disturbingly,” by social-media companies.
I heard this opinion repeatedly in casual conversations and from the speakers onstage. Jonah Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Dispatch, argued during the panel that the “disinformation” label can backfire by feeding into the idea that the “powers that be” are forbidding people from looking at information that they consider illegitimate. He illustrated his point with Biden’s laptop too. Twitter and Facebook treated it like disinformation before the truth could be determined. “Whether you think that was smart in the heat of the moment or not, [it] has backfired enormously,” he said. “Because now it seems like it was all conspiratorial.”
I was a little surprised by how often the laptop came up, but I shouldn’t have been. Its aura has grown ever more powerful as the story around it has cohered. After a short period during which Fox News also considered the laptop story suspect, the network has been covering it even more intensely than it did the leaked Democratic National Committee emails in 2016. In December 2020, when I was interviewing users of the alternative social-media platform Parler, almost everybody I spoke with brought it up. A cool, anonymous Substack writer beloved by New York City’s art set has also made frequent disapproving reference to Twitter’s and Facebook’s actions around the laptop story. Angry online chatter about it never truly went away, but now it’s back with a vengeance. All of my friends know that something went wrong with the laptop. Many of them do not care, but they still know. This week, hours after the news broke that Elon Musk would be acquiring Twitter, he replied to a tweet in which Twitter’s chief legal officer and general counsel Vijaya Gadde was referred to as the company’s top “censorship advocate,” writing, “Suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.”
That cursed computer, otherwise known as “the laptop from hell,” as Donald Trump has called it, is an icon of our information ecosystem’s dysfunction. Some journalists relied prematurely and too much on popular frameworks when covering it. The story really was suppressed by tech giants. But it also really was complicated, and required time and resources to investigate. Finding the truth takes time and effort and a willingness to be surprised. It also requires some grace on the part of the public—journalists need to be able to publish facts bit by bit, as they learn them, doing their work in front of an audience that is receptive to the idea that knowledge shifts and that coherent drama that blazes forth all at once is rare. This is, the laptop makes clear, no longer possible. By the time reporters put in the work to verify parts of the story, it was too late—the corrupt “media” was a monolith with an agenda.
Facebook and Twitter really did make sloppy decisions. They and other tech platforms had spent the past several years struggling with how to fact-check a pandemic and when to interfere with election interference; the laptop undermined that work by illustrating just how bizarre—and dangerous—it would be to centralize the responsibility for discerning truth. Twitter has apologized for its handling of the story and made changes to its policy on the distribution of hacked materials. Facebook has elaborated on its decision-making process, which was informed by the FBI’s warning to watch for hack-and-leak operations carried out by foreign actors. And if federal prosecutors indict Hunter Biden for possible financial crimes, it will not be solely on the basis of the man’s laptop, so the case could be made that the thing doesn’t matter much anymore. Yet it isn’t going anywhere. Why would it? It’s perfect!
“This is arguably the most well-known story the New York Post has ever published and it endures as a story because it was initially suppressed by social media companies and jeered by politicians and pundits alike,” Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and a speaker at the conference, told me in an email. The laptop is now shorthand, and it makes an easy point. For example, after another panel at the conference, a University of Chicago student asked CNN’s Brian Stelter a question to which there was undoubtedly no satisfying answer: Invoking the Biden laptop, he asked, “With mainstream corporate journalists becoming little more than apologists and cheerleaders for the regime, is it time to finally declare that the canon of journalistic ethics is dead or no longer operative?” Stelter’s response was polite, if a bit meandering, and he offered to speak with the student one-on-one after the event, which he apparently did.
Even though this sequence of events was a bit dry, it was useful all the same. A video of the exchange was viewed millions of times on Twitter that Thursday, under the caption “Brian Stelter just got destroyed by a college freshman!” It was featured two days later on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, and Carlson was giddy while describing it. “There are still a couple of kids at the University of Chicago who are awake enough to say, ‘Wait a second, what are you talking about? Disinformation?’” After playing the video, he cracked himself up.