Analysis – #HunterBiden, or how Twitter became part of the American election campaign, by Jean-Baptiste Delhomme and Damien Liccia

“Our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great. And blocking URL sharing via tweet OR dm with zero context as to why we’re blocking: unacceptable”. When Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey commented on the #HunterBiden affair, he naturally chose to do so on Twitter. Named after one of the sons of Joe Biden, the favourite to win the American presidential election on 3 November, this affair has plenty of potentially explosive and shady content and is now an affair within an affair.

The New York Post, in bed with Donald Trump

In short, it’s a meta-affair. On the one hand there are leaks from the New York Post, an American tabloid belonging to the News Corp group owned by the Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, adopting a Conservative editorial line and one of the most widely read media sources in the US with 1.9 million followers on Twitter and 4.6 million on Facebook. An analysis of the engagements on the New York Post’s social network publications has also revealed the sheer firepower of this media source, as of the 129,628 articles posted by the NYP over the last two years, which we have extracted, these resulted in 372 million engagements on Facebook and Twitter. That gives us an average engagement per article of 2.8K. In other words, we’re a long way from a confidential media, even if by comparison its hitting power is significantly lower than that of the Times or the WaPo. Two newspapers which achieve a total of 1 billion engagements on the social networks and respectively 7k and 5.7k average engagements per article.

In terms of dynamics, although this is simply a volume-based representation limited to a simple analysis of changes in the engagement generated, we find that over recent weeks the NYP has enjoyed a particularly noteworthy upturn. This has enabled it to catch up with the Times or the WaPo.

Including the Donald Trump’s charitable activities (2.2M), the nomination of the occupant of the White House as the potential Nobel Peace Prize winner (1.5M), the Epstein affair (1.6M), the “Black Lives Matter” movement (1.4M) or Hydroxychloroquine (1.3M), it’s fair to say that over the recent months the New York Post has successfully embraced the burning topics of the day, with a choice of titles or editorial content which are in no way incompatible with this conservative newspaper’s editorial position. In this pre-electoral context, looking at the figures, each publication of the New York Post reveals a strategic interest in Donald Trump as an election candidate. while others feel that he appears to be compromised by his management of the health crisis.

Twitter Killed the Conservative Star – Or At Least Tried

An unstoppable rise, and to see this you only have to look at the downward curves of the other protagonists who have temporarily come up against social networks’ new policies concerning “dangerous”/”harmful” content. Indeed, the New York post’s various posts concerning the #HunterBiden affair, which, based on the information made available and on condition that information is correct (at the time of writing caution is the watchword) seem to point to a form of influence-peddling exercised by the former VP’s son at the time of the Obama administration, were all blocked by Twitter and Facebook. The screenshots were published across Twitter in the last few hours by elected representatives or the platform’s ordinary users to condemn the phenomenon, which some see as both censorship and political partisanship by the social network (at the time of writing, Twitter is being targeted more here than Facebook).

Twitter initially explained that these restrictions on sharing on the platform were due to the social network’s wish to avoid contributing to the public revelation of documents containing personal data (emails, addresses or telephone numbers) or stolen documents. Facebook’s position is even clearer as Andy stone, who manages the social network’s communication, yesterday expressed his doubts on Twitter (very funny) concerning the truthfulness of the New York Post article. These doubts have been combined with concrete action, as in the same post he stated Facebook’s wish to reduce the sharing of articles on the platform until the fact checking teams have been able to issue an opinion. Teams which are chiefly comprised of media figures and researchers, and who’s choices often provoke debate as seen in France with the various controversies generated by the Libération daily newspaper’s CheckNews service.

Social media interference in the 2020 United States elections

Ultimately, this affair should come as no surprise for those who for several years now have followed the positions adopted by the social networks concerning the content transiting via their servers, with an exponential increase in the phenomenon since Trump’s election in November 2016. From a policy of letting people do or say what they wanted, over the recent years the networks have tightened the screws, particularly to avoid a remake of the “Russian interference” scandal, this time affecting the 2020 elections. The social networks’ initiatives have resulted partly from pressure from political and economic stakeholders and of course sections of public opinion. Accused of being responsible for all the problems of 2016, with all of these narratives being torn apart by numerous researchers or public institutions, including the British Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who, after countless articles, theories and documentaries ultimately pointed out that despite all the bullshit from its managers, Cambridge Analaytica hardly resembled the Deus ex machina portrayed over recent years, with the latter themselves practising interference.

Whether the New York Post’s revelations are true or not, the fact remains that in the case in question both Twitter and Facebook acted politically, which constitutes not so much a precedent in terms of the approach they used but rather the terms of its scale.

Something which will ultimately strengthen the outgoing president’s position as an outsider faced with the “establishment” comprised of the major tech companies. A gift for a man whose campaign appeared up until now doomed to failure.

By Jean-Baptiste Delhomme, a Partner in Antidox and Damien Liccia, Vice-president of the Observatoire Stratégique de l’Information