Can you think of an occasion where Big Tech titans may have swayed a presidential election? Facebook and Twitter’s blocking of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop in October 2020 surely must be a top candidate. In the wake of the Post’s scoop, mainstream media ignored the story or labeled it Russian disinformation. Journalist Glenn Greenwald dared to probe the allegations, after which his exchanges with his editor at The Intercept led to his resignation. No wonder other mainstream journalists didn’t dare travel down that route. Let’s imagine instead that the media had openly discussed the story: Could the tight presidential election have swung toward Donald Trump? At a minimum, are these questions worth asking?
At a recent conference on “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” at the University of Chicago, organized by the Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic, the answer was apparently “no.” It was quite a stellar event. Former president Barack Obama gave a speech, as did Nobel laureate Maria Ressa. Well-known journalists, politicians, and high-level academics participated in discussions. According to the event program, participants warned that “social media have enabled the rapid spread of misinformation,” which may “undermine trust” and “erode democracies from within.” Panelists discussed “Disinformation and Subversion of Elections.” Search the program for specifics and you can find mentions of the “Russian Internet Research Agency” for the 2016 election and the “January 6 insurrection.” Meantime, the New York Post Hunter Biden laptop story isn’t mentioned.
Fortunately, some courageous students stepped up to ask about it—and made some news, since the reaction by the discussants to their questions spoke volumes. The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum dismissed Daniel Schmidt’s question about the laptop story as “totally irrelevant.” Sky News Australia reported on Christopher Phillips’s grilling of CNN’s Brian Stelter about the story; Stelter gave an evasive answer. Jonah Goldberg asserted that it was a “preposterous counterfactual” but nevertheless also “impossible to refute” that broad reporting on the story could have tilted the election, much as one could not prove that the water bottle next to him was not responsible for keeping polar bears away from the conference. I take his point, but isn’t his water bottle’s having a polar-bear-repulsion effect just a tad less likely than the media’s suppression of the Biden story having an effect on the election? And isn’t the latter more worthy of debating in earnest than the former?
“How can media companies establish trust and defend journalism against attacks of partisanship?” This question was on the conference’s program, and it’s a good one. I might propose that the media, starting with the luminaries attending the conference, could try to be less partisan and more balanced in response to questions like the ones asked by the students at the conference. It was a missed opportunity. The conference was meant to find ways to restore trust in media and help prevent the erosion of democracy. Instead, it may have accomplished the opposite.
Here is hoping that not all is lost. The Atlantic and major news outlets could run some serious pieces, probing whether the Hunter Biden laptop story and its handling by the mainstream media and the Big Tech companies could have swung the election. It is an important question that should concern us all, regardless of whether one likes the outcome of the election. It was the question that this conference could have tried to answer. It was an excellent conference otherwise.