Following a week of confusion and controversy around a series of stories on Meta published by The Wire, the India-based independent news site said on Tuesday it would review its coverage, including the documents, sources, and source materials used to build the stories that have become the central subject of tension.
The stories in question, which have now been withdrawn by The Wire until a review is completed, alleged that Meta gave Amit Malviya, the social media head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sweeping powers to take down Instagram posts they didn’t like. Meta and its officials immediately went public, not only dismissing the claims but also saying the documents used by the publication had been fabricated.
What ensued in the next several days can be best summed up as utter confusion.
Researchers, journalists, and social media users have been split: Some believe Meta is relying on its old trope of dismissing journalists’ investigations, while others say The Wire was misled by a fake source and that it hadn’t done enough due diligence. Here’s a chronological look at what transpired in the conflict, and how it got worse:
How did the controversy start?
On October 6, The Wire published a story about a post by Instagram user @cringearchivist being incorrectly taken down for violating community guidelines around nudity. The post — a video of a man performing a Hindu ritual to an idol of Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh — did not include any nudity. The Wire said there had been multiple instances where @cringearchivist, known to post social and political satire often critical of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was censored by Instagram.
On October 10, The Wire published a follow-up, claiming that @cringearchivist’s post had been taken down at the behest of Malviya. The claim was based on an “internal Instagram report” that The Wire said it had accessed through a highly placed source at Meta. The report also said that Meta had granted special privileges to Malviya under its “XCheck program,” which ensures that any post reported by him would be taken down instantly without any oversight.
What was Meta’s response?
Andy Stone, head of communications at Meta, refuted the claims in a tweet. He wrote that XCheck had “nothing to do with the ability to report posts” and the posts in question were flagged by Meta’s “automated systems, not humans.” He also said that the documents published by The Wire to establish its claims were “fabricated.”
In a statement published on October 12, Meta said:
“While it is legitimate for us to be held accountable for our content decisions, the allegations made by The Wire are false. They contain mischaracterizations of how our enforcement processes work, and rely on what we believe to be fabricated evidence in their reporting.”
There is no contention that Meta does have an XCheck or cross-check program, which, according to a 2021 report by The Wall Street Journal, allows high-profile users to avoid Facebook and Instagram’s content moderation procedures. However, The Wire suggested that the program also gave users like Malviya sweeping powers.
What did The Wire have to say about Meta’s defense?
The Wire dismissed Meta’s “fabricated” defense. A day before Meta’s statement was released, on October 11, The Wire had published another story that included a photograph of an email purportedly sent by Stone to “team” and “internal” where he was reproaching the company’s staff for the leak of the internal document that the website relied on for its report about Malviya.
According to the screenshot of the email, Stone also asked the team to put The Wire’s editor-in-chief Siddharth Varadarajan and reporter Jahnavi Sen on a “watchlist.”
Meta’s chief information security officer Guy Rosen responded in a Twitter thread that the email was fake because “the supposed email address from which it was sent isn’t even Stone’s current email address, and the ‘to’ address isn’t one we use here either.”
Rosen further went on to deny the existence of any “watchlist” maintained by the company for journalists. “There is no such list,” he said.
What were the concerns around The Wire’s reporting?
On October 15, The Wire published another response where it said it had conducted a DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) test — a form of email authentication that allows a recipient to validate a message — on Stone’s email to Meta staff. The Wire said the test had been signed off on by two independent domain experts.
In the same report, The Wire also published a screen recording of its source at Meta logging into Instagram’s internal workspace, which shows a list of post-incident reports.
The Wire’s explanations, however, highlighted several inconsistencies.
When it published its final story, the screenshots of emails from experts that The Wire claimed had authenticated its DKIM test were time-stamped with the year 2021. The Wire later updated its report, and the time stamps had been changed to 2022.
Devesh Kumar, a reporter at The Wire who handled the DKIM check, said on Twitter that he had installed TailsOS on his computer, which led to the incorrect time stamps.
On October 18, Indian legal and policy analyst Pranesh Prakash tweeted that an independent expert, who The Wire claimed had signed off on its verification process for Stone’s email, told him that he never undertook any DKIM verification for the publication. The expert later confirmed he never did a DKIM verification for The Wire, and said a fake email had been created in his name.
The other expert, also reported by The Wire to have authenticated their DKIM check, recanted his testimony.
In a tweet on October 16, Meta’s Rosen claimed an internal investigation had revealed that a spoof account was created on its Meta Workplace product on October 13, three days after The Wire published the report claiming Malviya was bestowed with special privileges. “Based on the timing of this account’s creation on October 13, it appears to have been set up specifically in order to manufacture evidence to support the Wire’s inaccurate reporting. We have locked the account because it’s in violation of our policies and is being used to perpetuate fraud and mislead journalists,” Meta said in a statement.
How have tech experts and journalists reacted?
Despite The Wire’s best efforts to prove their stories are based on hard evidence, those who follow Meta and have covered the social media giant in the past have expressed skepticism. Some tech experts and journalists have questioned the authenticity of the evidence furnished by The Wire. Others who have followed the Indian media industry have said the publication could have been a victim of an elaborate hoax to discredit its credibility, or worse, it had fabricated evidence to smear Meta.
Pratik Sinha, co-founder and editor of Indian fact-checking website Alt News, called The Wire’s response “not good enough.”
Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook — who became a whistleblower in 2020 when she shed light on the social networking platform’s reluctance to act against political actors violating content moderation rules in several countries, including India — said she was also unconvinced by the evidence published by The Wire.“India deserves better and healthier reporting that can hold the important – incl. the government – accountable,” she said in a tweet.
Why does all of this matter?
Meta is the most powerful social media platform in India, with over 550 million users on WhatsApp, 410 million on Facebook, and over 400 million on Instagram. So, the company’s actions can have a disproportionate impact on Indians.
This becomes tricky given Meta’s history of taking controversial content moderation decisions to avoid offending local governments and influential public figures. A 2020 report by The Wall Street Journal accused Facebook’s then-India public policy head Ankhi Das of siding with the BJP. Facebook denied the claims at the time, and Das later stepped down from her post.
In October 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said “the Global South is in danger,” referring to the social media company’s underinvestment in non-Western countries that leaves millions of users exposed to disinformation, hate speech, and violent content. Haugen’s revelations, which came to be known as the “Facebook Papers,” showed that the most damning examples of failure to enforce community standards were visible in India.
The Wire, an independent news website co-founded by Varadarajan in 2015, has built a reputation for tough and continuous reporting criticizing the policies of the Modi-led government in India. Many experts believe that the controversy around the Meta story could damage the publication’s credibility and make it easy for its critics to dismiss its reporting in the future.
Zhang says that has already happened. “The Wire may survive this simply because its readers are very loyal,” Zhang told Rest of World in an email. “But barring an apology/retraction and strong efforts to repair its credibility (or the publication of actual convincing proof), that credibility is essentially destroyed among most. And keep in mind the independent media landscape in India is already a small minority of the Indian readership.”