Hunter Biden emails fake news
Hunter Biden (Image: ABC News/Youtube/New York Post)

There’s been movement at the fake news station this past week: all the old media regrets over coverage of Clinton’s emails seemed suddenly forgotten, bringing the long campaign for reliable news to an inflexion point.

As old media rushed to publish (and amplify) a questionable report based on hacked documents of doubtful origin, it was 2016’s villains — Facebook and Twitter — that were more cautious, responsible or censorious (depending on your point of view) than traditional media.

No good deed goes unpunished: the platforms may pay the price for restraint, with increased calls for regulation. And there’s a new question: just what are the Murdochs up to?

When the Hunter Biden email story broke late last Wednesday, mainstream journalists sniffed the battle with delight. All the cracks from the 2016 election gathered to the fray: News Corp, Twitter, Facebook, Trump, Biden. There was Steve Bannon still, no doubt, hoping for pardon or reprieve over fraud charges. And, yes, there were hacked emails.

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The story began with “Biden Secret Emails” splashed across the front page of News Corp’s remaining US tabloid, the New York Post. It was based on alleged emails from a computer allegedly owned by Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential candidate.

What a newspaper says must be news, right? Other political journalists (including The New York Times’ White House correspondent Maggie Haberman) then tweeted out a link. (Many were more cautious.)

This is the way fake news often work: political actors plant a story in (usually willing) old media with an institutional voice that other journalists recognise and repeat. Stealing that credibility, the story powers across social media in tweets, likes and shares. The controversy quickly becomes the story, untethered from any factual significance. That was the trajectory of hacked emails in 2016.

But this time social media refused to play along. Twitter blocked users posting a link to the story or posting related images. Briefly, it blocked the Trump campaign account. Twitter said the report broke its rules about sharing personal information or hacked materials. Facebook throttled the story to slow down its spread while it fact-checked the report.

“Censored,” screamed the New York Post in all-caps the next day. Prominent Republicans, including Trump, piled in. News Corp media in Australia followed. According to Sky after dark’s Paul Murray, the left-wing press (that is, everyone else) ignored the story “and then their mates in big tech did the hard work for them”.

The next day, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph headlined “Outrage over social media’s Biden bias”. “Digital giants censor Biden criticism,” said The Australian (while downplaying the significance of the original publication).

The censorship carry-on gave the story a new opportunity to spread, forcing amplification of the original report to explain the ban. On the weekend, Twitter abandoned its policy, saying it had become pointless. Facebook is continuing to restrict access.

The Post has published further reports based on what it says are the Hunter Biden documents. For Australian viewers, Walkley Award-winning Sharri Markson had a special interview on Sunday night with current criminal defendant Steve Bannon, who claims to have given the documents to the Post. The reports remain unproven and heavily contested.

The actions by Twitter and Facebook came as the platforms seem to be pre-adjusting to an incoming Democratic administration. Before last week’s blow-up, Facebook had already moved against right-wing conspiracy group QAnon and blocked Holocaust deniers. It has committed to suspending all political advertising after the US elections.

Republicans have noticed. In a rare intervention, right-wing US Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas called for a tightened reading of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that gives the big tech companies immunity for material published on their platforms. Trump’s appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai followed on with a promise to make regulations to restrict the immunity law.

Meanwhile, the story has encouraged Murdoch watchers to ask: has Lachlan abandoned his father’s reputation of backing winners? Once upon a time, polls showing Democrats so far ahead would have prompted some moderation. Instead both the Post and Fox News are doubling down on Trump, even as reports emerge that Rupert expects a Biden landslide.

And they’re asking: as brother James publicly voices concerns about hidden agendas and disinformation, is there a family insurance policy that means Lachlan’s succession may not be as definite as it seemed just a year ago?