Once again, search and social media platforms are facing moderation challenges tied to data allegedly leaked from the president’s son’s devices.
Over the weekend, users of 4Chan’s /pol/ messageboard were whipped into a frenzy of excitement by one poster claiming to have hacked into Hunter Biden’s phone. Exact details are hard to confirm, but the original poster suggests they have used a tool called iPhone Backup Extractor to recover backup copies of the contents of an iPhone and iPad belonging to Hunter Biden — possibly by compromising his iCloud account and downloading the data from the cloud.
The 4Chan poster shared further instructions about how to decrypt the backup files, and other users began to share images, video, and messages allegedly taken from the phone. No news outlet has confirmed that the content is genuine, but Motherboard reports that at least some of the images shared on 4Chan haven’t previously appeared anywhere else online. Meanwhile, the Secret Service said on Monday evening that it was aware of the alleged hack but was “not in a position to make public comments on potential investigative actions.”
Some videos appear to show Hunter Biden smoking crack cocaine or in sexual encounters with women believed to be escorts. It’s great fodder for conservative pundits, but there’s no real argument that publishing these clips is in the public interest — especially since so much similar material emerged when the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop hard drive were shared with the New York Post in 2020. (Many of the details about his hard partying lifestyle were released by Hunter Biden himself in his 2021 memoir, Beautiful Things.)
There have been legitimate corruption concerns around Hunter Biden’s business links to China and Ukraine, but so far, no evidence of wrongdoing has been produced — and nothing from the latest leak gives any insight into those concerns. As a result, the story has been a difficult one for mainstream news outlets, with most outlets holding off on early coverage of the leak.
Twitter and Facebook did not make any public statements about restricting links to the 4Chan posts and / or other references to the iCloud hack, though it is unclear what decisions may have been made behind the scenes. Twitter has a policy that prohibits the sharing of materials obtained by hacking, and while the hashtag #HunterBiden was listed as trending at the start of the week, it no longer seemed to be a visible trending topic on Tuesday afternoon. Twitter had not responded to questions about moderation sent by The Verge at time of publication.
Google took more identifiable action, showing users a notification box for certain search terms related to the allegedly hacked material. In response to queries such as “hunter biden crack,” users were shown a message telling them that results were changing quickly, with a prompt to return later for more reliable information. Results then appeared below the message box.
Google spokesperson Ned Adriance told The Verge that the notices were first rolled out in June 2021 as part of the company’s attempt to boost information literacy by giving additional context around search results.
“These notices automatically appear when our systems detect that a topic is rapidly evolving, like in a breaking news situation, and a range of sources have not yet weighed in,” Adriance said. “There is no manual triggering involved … Our automated search systems don’t understand the political ideology of content, and it’s not a ranking factor for search results.”
Nonetheless, some conservative sources accused Google of censoring the search results, despite the fact that search hits did appear directly below the notice. It’s a sensitive topic, especially in connection with Hunter Biden, because of the aggressive moderation of the New York Post’s original story about the laptop. When the story was first released in 2020 — just a month before the presidential election — Facebook and Twitter both restricted sharing of the URL on the platforms, citing the need to limit the spread of potentially false information.
Google’s strategy seems designed to prevent the exploitation of “data voids”: search queries that turn up low-quality information in the time before well-researched material has been published to fill the gap. Emily Dreyfuss, a senior fellow on the Technology and Social Change team at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy, says that Google is making the right call in this case by giving context without blocking results from being seen.
“As the most powerful arbiter of information online in the US, Google has a responsibility to prioritize high-quality information,” Dreyfuss said. “Here Google is informing the searcher that what they are looking for is contested in some way—it’s breaking news or the story is in flux—and therefore the results are not necessarily reliable, but importantly it is not censoring those results.”
The Google notification was similar to labels introduced by Twitter to deal with election misinformation in 2020, Dreyfuss said.