WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 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.