WASHINGTON – The leaked recordings were hardly a political bombshell: The apparent phone conversations between Joe Biden and Ukraine’s then-president largely confirm Biden’s account of his dealings in Ukraine.
But the choppy audio, disclosed by a Ukrainian lawmaker whom U.S. officials described Thursday as an “active Russian agent” who has sought to spread online misinformation about Biden, was nonetheless seized on by President Donald Trump as well as his supporters to promote conspiracy theories about the Democratic nominee. Social media posts and videos about the recordings have been viewed millions of times, according to an Associated Press analysis, even though Trump's own administration says they rely on "false and unsubstantiated narratives.”
The audio’s proliferation on social media shows how foreign operations aimed at influencing the U.S. election are still easily reaching Americans, despite efforts by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to rein in such meddling.
Since there’s no evidence the heavily edited recordings have been stolen or were entirely fabricated, they’ve been able to flourish online, skirting new policies social media companies rolled out to prevent foreign interference in this year’s elections. And unlike in 2016, when Russia used bogus social media accounts or bots to wage a misinformation campaign, this time they're being spread by legitimate American social media users.
“It’s certainly an influence campaign,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, said of the recordings. “It’s misleading to an audience that doesn’t have the full picture.”
Recordings of Biden’s 2016 calls with Ukraine's then-president, Petro Poroshenko, were released during a May press conference by Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Derkach, a graduate of a Moscow spy academy who met last year with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to push baseless corruption allegations against Biden, and his son, Hunter.
The audio was swiftly spread by conservative figures, including Trump's oldest son, and conservative news outlets across social media to fuel online conspiracy theories, speculation and misinformation about Biden’s role in the firing of Ukraine's chief prosecutor when Biden was vice president.
U.S. intelligence officials singled out Derkach in a statement last month that accused him of helping Russian efforts to undermine Biden's candidacy. On Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach, identifying him as an “active Russian agent” for over a decade and blaming him for spreading “unsubstantiated allegations” to American voters and trying to influence the election.
Concerns about Derkach haven't stopped Trump from pushing the recordings, retweeting an excerpt of the audio and later a tweet from One America News Network that promoted “Biden's bribe tapes.”
Social media companies are less likely to ban material that is shared by legitimate and authentic internet sites and users.
“The adjudication process becomes just way more complicated if it's an actual known outlet or a real American user or real user in general," said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington think tank.
The gist of the claims advanced by Trump and his supporters are that Biden demanded the firing of top Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect Burisma, the natural gas company where Hunter Biden held a board seat, from a criminal investigation.
In one edited phone call now circulating online, Biden tells Poroshenko he will commit $1 billion to the country once Shokin is fired.
But the corruption theories have been discredited because Shokin did not have an active investigation into Hunter Biden's work and because Joe Biden, in seeking Shokin's firing, was representing the official position of the Obama administration, Western allies and many in Ukraine who perceived the prosecutor as soft on corruption. At the time, Shokin was facing widespread criticism for failing to prosecute snipers who opened fire on Kyiv protesters.
The Biden campaign says it regards the calls as heavily edited. Biden and Poroshenko’s phone calls have not been publicly released, but the Obama administration provided summaries of the conversations in 2016, which included U.S. requests for a new prosecutor general. Shokin was ousted in March of that year.
The edited recordings spreading online have been assembled together, raising the likelihood the audio could be missing words and conversations or the timing has been altered, said Stephan Moore, a sound artist and Northwestern University lecturer who reviewed the clips circulating on YouTube for the AP.
“Anyone who works in audio knows that voice recordings can be drastically altered (even by someone without much skill) in ways that completely change their meaning,” Moore said in an email.
Still, the audio quickly spread on social media, picked up by conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee and news programs like “Fox & Friends.”
The recordings have been played more than 1.5 million times total in a collection of videos on YouTube, tweeted out by Donald Trump Jr. to his more than 5 million followers and listened to more than 4 million times in a video on popular conservative Ben Shapiro’s Facebook page.
There have been more than 117,000 mentions of Biden and the audio on Twitter since May, according to analysis by Zignal Labs, a social media monitoring firm.
The origins of the audio are murky. Derkach has said they came from investigative journalists, though it's possible they had been stolen by a foreign intelligence service. Still, that's not enough to violate the tech giants’ new bans on hacked information, like the stolen Democratic emails of 2016.
While heavily edited, the recordings do not appear to be entirely fabricated — White House records confirm, for instance, that Biden and Poroshenko spoke on the same day of the recording that Trump retweeted last month — even though they’re being actively used by prominent social media figures to fuel election-related misinformation.
YouTube, for example, said the audio recordings don’t violate policy because the tech company has been unable to confirm they were obtained through hacking. The Biden campaign petitioned YouTube to remove the recordings on the grounds they had been manipulated to mislead viewers, but the company refused, according to a person familiar with the request who insisted on anonymity to discuss it.
Twitter also said the audio does not violate its policies because it's unclear if the tapes were illegally obtained. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
That's a loophole foreign and domestic troublemakers are inclined to continue exploiting before Election Day, Jankowicz said.
“If you get a piece of information in the hands of the right American, it can absolutely spin out of control and make the national news in a couple of days,” she said.