Zuckerberg, Hunter Biden, Facebook and FBI—What We Do Know, What We Don't

A clip of Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is being shared as evidence that the FBI tried to suppress stories about Hunter Biden in the leadup to the 2020 presidential election.

Zuckerberg, appearing on Joe Rogan's podcast in August 2022, told how his organization was warned in 2020 of "some kind of dump" before the New York Post published its initial story about Hunter Biden's laptop.

The Meta chief said while the warning wasn't about the laptop story specifically, it nonetheless "fit the pattern."

Zuckerberg Rogan Hunter
Mark Zuckerberg, pictured here July 8, 2021 in Sun Valley, Idaho, appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast detailing how the FBI's contact with Facebook leading up to the 2020 election. Inset left, Hunter Biden in Johns Island, South Carolina on August 13, 2022, and, inset right, Joe Rogan performing at The Ice House Comedy Club on April 17, 2019. L-R Nicholas Kamm, Kevin Dietsch, Michael S. Schwartz./AFP via Getty Images & Getty Images

The clip was immediately seized upon by social media users, some claiming it to be evidence that the FBI interfered in the publication of the story and (by extension) the presidential election.

However, Zuckerberg has previously spoken about Facebook's communications with the FBI prior to the New York Post story, and his comments on Rogan may have confused matters further.

To unpick the particulars of the story, Newsweek has looked at what we can say for certain about Facebook's relationship with the bureau and what it has to do with Hunter Biden.

What We Do Know

Even though a number of news outlets reported on Zuckerberg's comments to Rogan (including Newsweek), it isn't the first occasion he has talked about information sharing between the FBI and Facebook.

It is perhaps of heightened interest now, however, because of the criticism the bureau is facing over the raid on former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

On October 28, 2020, Zuckerberg, appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, said that the FBI had told Facebook in the lead-up to the election that it should be "on high alert and sensitivity...if a trove of documents appeared that we should view that with suspicion, that it might be part of a foreign manipulation attempt."

This hearing was highlighted by Meta after posts of the Joe Rogan interview began flooding Twitter.

The hearing was only two weeks after the New York Post broke its initial story about the contents of a laptop, alleged to belong to Hunter Biden, which had been found at a computer repair store in Delaware.

When the story was published, both Facebook and Twitter took steps to limit its spread as its authenticity was verified. Although these restrictions were later lifted, both platforms were criticized for the move.

Speaking at the hearing, Zuckerberg said the bureau had warned of "a hack and leak operation in the days or weeks leading up to this election."

Asked by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) whether FBI made contact about the Hunter Biden story, Zuckerberg said "not about that story specifically."

When pressed by Johnson as to why Facebook restricted sharing of the story, Zuckerberg referred back to the FBI alert and said "we didn't censor the content, we flagged it for fact checkers to review and pending that review, we temporarily constrained its distribution to make sure that it didn't spread wildly while it was being reviewed."

"But it's not up to us either to determine whether it's Russian interference, nor whether it's true. We rely on the FBI intelligence and fact checkers to do that," he added.

Later, when asked by chairman Senator Roger Wicker (R-MI) whether Zuckerberg had any information to indicate that Russia was the source of the Post article, he replied "Senator, I would rely on the FBI to make that assessment."

Several weeks later, Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, answering similar questions.

Facebook sent the Judiciary Committee detailed answers following Zuckerberg's appearance, outlining the context ahead of the Hunter Biden story.

Here, it was noted how for "several months prior to the publication of the October 14 New York Post story" U.S. intelligence had issued public warnings about foreign interference in American democratic processes.

"Along with their public warnings, and as part of the ongoing cooperation that tech companies established with government partners following the 2016 election, the FBI also privately warned tech companies to be on high alert for the potential of hack-and-leak operations carried out by foreign actors in the weeks leading up to November 3rd," Zuckerberg and Facebook responded.

"We took these risks seriously. In the case of the October 14 New York Post story, given the concerns raised by the FBI and others, we took steps consistent with our policies to slow the spread of suspicious content and provide fact-checkers the opportunity to assess it.

"However, at no point did we take any action to block or remove the content from the platform."

This kind of detail and tone is somewhat different from what Zuckerberg said to Joe Rogan.

During the podcast, Rogan asked how Facebook moderates stories, referring to the laptop story in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Rogan asked whether, like Twitter, Facebook "censored" the story.

"Basically the background here is the FBI basically came to us, some folks on our team, and was like, 'Hey, just so you know you should be on high alert,'" Zuckerberg recalled.

"'We thought there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election, we have on notice that basically there's about to some kind of dump that's similar to that so just be vigilant.'"

He went on to explain how, after the story broke, that its "distribution on Facebook was decreased'' through the platform's content ranking system and "newsfeeds" to a "meaningful" extent.

"We just kind of thought, hey, look if the FBI, which I still view as a legitimate institution in this country, it's very professional law enforcement, if they come to us and tell us we need to be on guard about something, then I want to take that seriously."

Joe Rogan attends the UFC 277 weigh-in
Joe Rogan attends the UFC 277 ceremonial weigh-in at American Airlines Center on July 29, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Rogan asked if Facebook was put "on guard" about the laptop story. Zuckerberg replied: "No, I don't remember if it was that specifically but it basically fit the pattern."

While we are mostly judging the tone of the conversations, there is a clear difference in detail between the Joe Rogan podcast and the Senate hearings.

Zuckerberg's testimony to the Commerce and Senate Judiciary Committee set out a clear timeline, spaced out over several months, where the intelligence community was alerting tech companies about the threat of foreign disinformation efforts.

Following this recollection, it seemed that when the Biden laptop story was published, Facebook was already vigilant about misinformation concerns and flagged the story as potentially misleading.

Arguably, the impression created by the Rogan clip is that the FBI's contact was vague, sudden, and limited to a time shortly before the publication of the New York Post story.

Obviously, the far more casual nature of Rogan's podcast is unlikely to produce the same kind of forensic insight that a government committee hearing would. To that end, it may have been a mistake on Zuckerberg's part to talk about his dealings with the FBI in the way that he did on the podcast, given the sensitivity of the subject.

Mark Zuckerberg testifies
With an image of himself on a screen in the background, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What we do know is that while the FBI was in touch with Facebook, which prompted Facebook's restriction of the New York Post story, the evidence appears to show the FBI was not directly contacting social media companies specifically about that story.

The FBI has of course been variously accused elsewhere of covering for Hunter Biden with accusations that it launched a campaign to discredit negative information about the president's son.

Johnson, the aforementioned senator, said in August 2022 that the bureau could not be trusted to investigate Biden's laptop.

What We Don't Know

Zuckerberg has not submitted a more detailed timeline of conversations between Facebook/Meta and the intelligence community, nor has he provided a breakdown of how the alert system between the FBI and his company worked.

It seems unlikely that the FBI would have alerted tech companies about one New York Post story. Instead, the evidence indicates that the alerts sent by the FBI were of a general nature. Nonetheless, we don't know the exact mechanics at play here.

It's possible, too, that Zuckerberg didn't make decisions to moderate the Hunter Biden story himself, and may instead have relayed information from the subordinates responsible during government hearings and other public appearances. But we don't know the details of that process and who exactly made all the calls.

We also don't have verifiable evidence that the FBI engaged in schemes to protect the president's son, although given the animosity Republicans feel now both toward Biden and the FBI, claims like that are likely to multiply.

Newsweek has contacted the FBI and Meta for comment.