The former owner of a computer repair shop in Delaware is suing Twitter for defamation, alleging that the platform’s choice to moderate a New York Post story that cited him as a source is tantamount to labeling him personally a “hacker.”
Twitter’s “actions and statements had the specific intent to communicate to the world” that John Paul Mac Isaac “is a hacker,” the suit (PDF) alleges, eventually forcing him to shut down his Delaware business. Mac Isaac is seeking $500 million in punitive damages from the suit, as well as whatever “further relief” the court deems appropriate.
The alleged defamation ties to a specific October episode in a fall that was, frankly, full of strange episodes. On October 14, the New York Post ran a story alleging that President-Elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had connected his father with Ukrainian energy firm Burisma in 2014. These allegations were based on emails the Post said it got from Trump attorney and former New York mayor Rudy Giliani, who in turn allegedly obtained them from a laptop that Biden’s son Hunter dropped off at Mac Isaac’s computer repair shop in 2019.
In the suit, Mac Isaac says between July 2019 and October 2020 he spoke several times with the FBI and Robert Costello, an attorney for Giuliani, about Biden’s hard drive. Mac Isaac was not aware the New York Post had any information about the hard drive or that the paper was going to publish a story about its contents, he claims, and he did not give Giuliani, Costello, or the Post “authorization” to release his name.
The Post story immediately raised a series of red flags for disinformation experts, and in the heated pre-election environment both Facebook and Twitter took relatively quick action to slow down the spread of the story. Facebook deprecated links to the story in users’ newsfeeds; a spokesman at the time said, “I want [to] be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.”
Twitter’s first approach was likewise to deprecate links to the story, so they wouldn’t bubble to the top in algorithmically-managed timelines. By the time a few hours had passed, however, Twitter went one step further and outright prohibited links to the story from appearing on its platform, either in users’ regular timeline or in direct messages.
By way of explanation, Twitter representatives pointed media to the platform’s hacked materials policy, which prohibits sharing links to or images of hacked content. The company, as you might assume, faced widespread criticism for this choice—especially, though not exclusively, from conservative politicians and commentators.
Within the next day, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for Twitter’s move, saying that “straight blocking of URLs was wrong.” Twitter updated its hacked materials policy around the same time, saying it will “no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them.” Stories about or citing hacked content are fine to post under that policy, as long as they do not violate any additional Twitter rules such as the sharing of personal private information.
By blocking the story under the “hacked materials” policy, Mac Isaac claims, Twitter acted with “malicious intent” to harm him, as it implies he hacked the laptop to gain access to the files. “The information obtained from the computer does not hacked materials [sic], because [Mac Isaac] lawfully gained access to the computer,” the suit says, “first with the permission of its owner, and then, after Biden failed to retrieve the hard drive despite [Mac Isaac’s] requests, in accordance with the Mac Shop’s abandoned property policy.”