Note: I originally wrote this as an answer on Quora
The Hunter Biden story is a fascinating piece of disinformation and agitprop.
I’ve been following it closely, partly because it’s an interesting political story and partly because I’m an avid infosec enthusiast and I actually know how emails work.
I was, to be honest, surprised when the “Hunter laptop” scam first began that anyone actually believed it. If you know even a little bit about how email works, it’s plain as snow in December that the story was fake. The supposed “Hunter Biden emails” that were released were released as PDFs, with no headers, from email domains that do not exist. I was like “Really? People are falling for this? God damn conservatives sure are gullible.”
But in the time I’ve been in Florida helping to care for my mother, I’ve realized that isn’t fair.
My dad is older (he’s 82), he uses email every single day, but he has not the slightest clue how it works and he cannot define the word “domain,” much less explain what a domain is or spot an invalid email domain.
And honestly, a lot of people, on the left and right, are that way. It’s not that conservatives are stupid, it’s that to most people, email is magic. And they don’t ever see email headers, so it doesn’t look suspicious if someone shows them a fake email with no headers. And, like my dad, they don’t know what a domain is, so if you show them an email with a clearly bogus “from” address they don’t even blink.
In that sense, what looks like a crude, hamfisted attempt at second-rate disinformation is actually pretty savvy. It’s propaganda aimed at a very specific audience: an audience that is not technically savvy, but—and this is the important part—has also been indoctrinated to distrust “elitist experts” who think they know better. So this audience (1) doesn’t have the technical skill to see through even a very crude, simplistic scam and (2) will automatically respond to anyone who points out the scam with “neener neener I don’t believe you!!!”
It’s been a very interesting lesson in 21st-century propaganda. Forging a real email is hard. Email is trackable and traceable. It passes through many computers and it leaves traces in every one. You can not easily forge a realistic, believable email even if you have nearly unlimited resources…
…but you don’t have to.
If the target of your propaganda is people with the limited technical knowledge of my father who have also been told to distrust experts, it’s not necessary.
Now, having said that, parts of the scam are very sophisticated.
This is Martin Aspen.
Martin Aspen wrote a 64-page dossier documenting corruption in Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, which was released by security firm Typhoon Investigations.
Martin Aspen does not exist.
Typhoon Investigations does not exist.
The photograph of the person you see here is not a picture of a person. It was created by a GAN—a type of deepfake machine learning computer program.
If you’re not familiar with these, I recommend you visit the site This Person Does Not Exist.
Every time you refresh the browser, you will see a photograph of a different person. None of the photographs are real. None of the people exist. The photographs are all created by machine learning deepfake programs.
Anyway, back to Martin Aspen.
Martin Aspen does not exist. His photo is a computer-generated deepfake. His resume lists companies he’s never worked for, universities that have no record of him, and security firms that don’t exist. The entire dossier was faked.
Fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago, this level of fakery would require the concerted effort of a nation-state’s intelligence team to do. Today, a single reasonably skilled person can do it. I can do it. You can do it.
And the thing that’s most fascinating about all of this, besides the fact it shows how fragile and easily manipulated the public perception is? Proving that the document was fake will not change a single mind.
The Hunter Biden saga has revealed two things:
- Small groups of individuals, even a single person sitting in a bedroom, can create agitprop and disinformation campaigns that would only a short time ago have been the envy of entire government intelligence teams.
- People want to believe. They’re simply looking for an excuse. Modern propaganda does not need to be subtle. It doesn’t need to be well-done. It doesn’t need to stand up to any scrutiny. It merely needs to give people an excuse to believe what they already want to believe.