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Some of the same people who pushed a false conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton that first emerged in 2016 are now targeting Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, with similar falsehoods. Their online posts are garnering astronomical numbers of shares on social media.
The fantastical rumors, which NBC News is declining to repeat verbatim, echo specific plot points central to "pizzagate," a viral disinformation campaign that predates QAnon but also falsely alleges a vast conspiracy of child abuse.
There is an important difference, however. The pizzagate-style rumors in 2016 were largely confined to far-right message boards like 4chan and parts of Reddit. But the Hunter Biden iteration of the same conspiracy theory took off last weekend with the help of speculation from conservative TV hosts and members of Congress. Their theorizing can be traced back to a new website that has been promoted by President Donald Trump and his surrogates.
The path of the conspiracy theory highlights how once-obscure and fringe claims are now able to reach mainstream conservative media and even elected officials in the run-up to the 2020 election.
The disinformation campaign appears to have been successful in its goal of generating a smear against the former vice president's son. According to Google Trends, "human trafficking" is now the third-most common related search term for "Hunter Biden" in the last year, after "laptop" and "New York Post," which point to search interest around the unconfirmed allegations that a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden contained evidence of crimes.
The New York Post published an article on Oct. 14 that it said was based on leaked private photos from Hunter Biden's personal hard drive, including photos that appeared to show the younger Biden sleeping and screenshots of unverified emails claiming that he had used his position on the board of an energy company to set up a meeting with his father, then the vice president. Both Bidens have denied any wrongdoing, with Joe Biden recently calling the allegations a "last-ditch effort in this desperate campaign to smear me and my family."
NBC News requested a copy of the hard drive, but Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, who had possession of the hard drive, has yet to respond. The New York Post article did not include any of the child abuse rumors.
But the child abuse conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden that emerged from the fringes of the internet began swirling before the New York Post article and can be traced to associates of former White House aide Steve Bannon. They are now reaching a fever pitch less than two weeks before the election, in which Trump trails Biden in most national and many battleground state polls.
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications and rhetoric at Syracuse University, said that pro-Trump trolls are "playing the hits from 2016" and hoping they stick with voters who didn't hear the first iteration of the rumor four years ago.
She noted that pushing child abuse conspiracy theories echoes what Bannon has publicly advocated in an effort to alter how voters feel.
"This is gaslighting of the highest order," Phillips said. "This has been the Steve Bannon playbook this entire time. He has celebrated the strategy of 'flooding the zone with s---' — when you confuse people, when you make them angry, when you just sort of throw too many things at them for them to process."
The re-run of an identical conspiracy theory from 2016, this time with Hunter Biden as the new target, gathered momentum in part because of a new disinformation pipeline promoted by high-profile conservative figures — including the president.
Before the Post
The earliest mentions of Hunter Biden's laptop surfaced in late September, weeks before the New York Post article was published, according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform that analyzed the social media conversation around recent Hunter Biden rumors for NBC News.
First Draft, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation and provides research and training for journalists, said the child abuse rumors originated from a nexus of pro-Trump figures. The organization is also a training partner of NBC News.
Keenan Chen, a First Draft researcher who has been monitoring the spread of the Hunter Biden rumors, said that they appeared to have originated from Dinggang Wang, an anti-Chinese government YouTube personality known for spreading misinformation about Covid-19.
Wang is connected to Bannon, the 2016 Trump campaign CEO, and Giuliani through Guo Wengui, a billionaire who fled China amid accusations of bribery and other crimes. The three men are board members of the Rule of Law Society, a nonprofit with a mission to "expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, brutality, false imprisonment, excessive sentencing, harassment and inhumanity" in China.
Wang did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Guo, who is a member of Trump's country club Mar-A-Lago and was once the world's 67th-wealthiest individual, befriended Bannon, a former Trump campaign and White House aide, in 2017, according to The Washington Post. Bannon was arrested by federal agents on Guo's yacht in September and charged with fraud, tied to an alleged scheme to defraud donors to a social media campaign called We Build the Wall. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to face trial next May.
The most prominent spread of the child abuse rumors involving Hunter Biden before the New York Post article came from Wang, whose Twitter thread of videos has been retweeted 20,000 times.
Wang's videos picked up more momentum a month later, as conspiracy theorists speculated about what else could be on the hard drives after the New York Post article.
While Delaware authorities have said the hard drive is now in the hands of the FBI, its emergence triggered a wave of conspiratorial thinking that has reached mainstream conservative outlets. But vague rumors about Hunter Biden's hard drive had already been spreading for a full month.
"Shortly after the New York Post story went online, some members of the QAnon conspiracy theory noticed Wang and his YouTube show, and started amplifying the unfounded pizzagate narrative and making it more visible in English on social media," Chen said.
According to analysis by the nonpartisan nonprofit Advance Democracy, more than 1 in 10 shares of a tweet from Giuliani about the New York Post article came from accounts that identify with the QAnon conspiracy theory in their Twitter bio.
Just one day after the New York Post article, allegations of wrongdoing against the Bidens involving Ukraine were seemingly abandoned by many Trump allies and conservative media, which turned the focus to claims of China-related corruption, according to Zignal's analysis. These conversations were dominated by Donald Trump Jr., the president and the actor James Woods.
But the most significant boost for the child abuse conspiracy theories would come from a website founded in May that has been embraced by Trump surrogates: Revolver News.
The new Drudge
Since the site's inception in May, Trump and some of his supporters have pointed to Revolver News as an alternative to The Drudge Report, the conservative news aggregation giant whose tone toward the president has shifted to negative and antagonistic since 2019.
Revolver articles flattering to Trump have been shared directly by allies of the White House, and even the president, for months. In September, Trump tweeted an endorsement of Revolver.
"Our people have all left Drudge. He is a confused MESS, has no clue what happened," Trump tweeted on Sept. 14. "They like REVOLVER and others!"
Revolver News does not disclose on its website who is behind its operations or any corporate affiliations, but Darren Beattie, a former speechwriter for Trump who was fired in 2018 for speaking at an event alongside white nationalists, has claimed authorship of some of the posts on the website. Most articles do not have bylines, and the few names that are on articles appear to be aliases of people that do not appear elsewhere on the internet and could not be identified with public records searches.
In 2019, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a loyal Trump ally, hired Beattie as a speechwriter. Gaetz's chief of staff, Jillian Lane Wyant, told NBC News on Wednesday that Beattie was no longer with Gaetz's office. Campaign finance reports show Beattie was on the payroll of Gaetz's re-election campaign and was paid $10,000 in June.
Beattie declined to comment on his role at Revolver News or the site's ownership.
Attempts to identify Revolver's ownership were unsuccessful, but the website shares an internet protocol address (a numerical label given to any computer connected to the internet) with only nine other websites, according to website details that are publicly available. Those websites make up "The Mix," which describes itself as a "unified publishing network" mostly covering pro wrestling and mixed martial arts.
The Mix is owned by Intermarkets, a digital media and advertising company. Until 2019, Intermarkets was the exclusive advertising representative for The Drudge Report, one of the most visited news sites on the internet.
Revolver, created in May, is now the only politics aggregator hosted on The Mix's IP address.
Revolver and The Mix sites share a Texas-based web service provider, Precision Creations. Joshua Wychopen, president of Precision Creations, declined to comment on the site's owner, citing client privacy concerns. Intermarkets denied any relationship with Revolver. Shauna Schatz, Intermarkets' vice president of media, said that she was unaware of who owned Revolver.
The online news watchdog Newsguard said in a report that Revolver "severely violates basic journalistic standards" and publishes conspiracy theories and misinformation about Covid-19.
On Oct. 15, Revolver published an article that suggested some of the unfounded allegations about Hunter Biden under the byline of Moxie Russo, a name that did not appear elsewhere on the internet based on various web searches and could not be identified in public records. While Beattie declined to comment on whether he had written the Oct. 15 article or subsequent ones from Revolver News detailing the baseless child abuse accusations, but he has promoted the articles from his personal Twitter account.
Into the mainstream
Shortly thereafter, some conservative media figures and politicians seized on the baseless claims.
Chanel Rion, a correspondent for the conservative cable media outlet One America News Network, claimed in a tweet that she had seen content from the hard drive. In the days following, Lauren Witzke, a QAnon-supporting Senate candidate in Delaware, tweeted the child abuse allegations. InfoWars host Alex Jones amplified similar unfounded claims about Hunter Biden, one version of which has been viewed over 3 million times on InfoWars' video hosting site.
By the weekend, more mainstream conservative media personalities had seized on the child abuse rumors. On Saturday, Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo suggested in an interview with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that the FBI may be investigating the claims. Bartiromo did not directly refer to Revolver News but discussed details unique to the Revolver News article. Johnson also echoed the suggestion. On Sunday, Wayne Allen Root, a national radio host, echoed some of the claims, receiving more than 25,000 retweets in two hours.
On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. repeated the accusations during a Fox News appearance.
The claims have also spread far and wide on Facebook, especially on public pages and groups dedicated to the QAnon-linked SaveTheChildren conspiracy theory movement, according to posts viewed by NBC News, using a list maintained by Junkipedia, an organization that monitors misinformation.
Giuliani, who said he has been in possession of the laptop for months, made no similar claims until last week. On Oct. 14, Giuliani said he would start revealing evidence of child abuse over "the next five days" related to the claims but he has yet to do so.
Subsequent appearances by Giuliani on the conservative cable channel Newsmax, including one on Tuesday in which he claimed to have handed over Hunter Biden's hard drive to the Delaware State Police, have garnered millions of views across online platforms.
Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the absence of evidence, lurid descriptions of Hunter Biden's allegedly criminal activity were pushed without proof by anonymous users on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan.
While the claims have not been repeated by any mainstream media outlets, that does not mean that they have not had their intended effect. Phillips, the Syracuse assistant professor, said the goal of the rumors isn't necessarily to make people believe the claims, but to confuse and disillusion voters into distrusting any piece of information and, in turn, keep them from wanting to vote at all.
"All 'flooding the zone with s--t' does is just make reasonable people not want to engage," said Phillips. "So then the screamers and the people on the far, far, far-right take over the discourse, and then that means no one can have a discourse."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was reported before Beattie, the Revolver writer, denounced one of the article's authors on social media and on a Fox News program Wednesday evening.