Dispute between The Wire and Meta over Instagram post roils India

Dispute between The Wire and Meta over Instagram post roils India
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NEW DELHI — Last week, The Wire, a small but plucky Indian media outlet, seemed to launch one explosive hit after another at Meta, the social media giant that owns Instagram and Facebook.

The California company had given an influential official in India’s ruling party the extraordinary power to censor Instagram posts he didn’t like, The Wire reported, citing a leaked document by a Meta insider. A day later, The Wire reported that Meta executives were struggling to find the mole who leaked the story, citing a new internal email the publication had obtained.

Finally, after Meta executives denied both reports on social media and, in an unusual move, insisted that The Wire’s documents appeared fabricated, The Wire published a lengthy rebuttal on Saturday that the outlet said would dispel any Doubt about your reports.

It did not. Instead, The Wire is now investigating itself.

The publication said on Tuesday it has launched an internal review of its stories on Meta, adding a new twist to a sensational dispute between a reputable Indian news organization and a powerful Silicon Valley company, a clash that has captivated the technology and media industries. media in both India and the United States. the United States.

The investigation came after a bitter week during which Meta and The Wire accused each other of fabrication. But Wire’s editors were pressured to review their work after tech experts from both countries pointed to a growing list of apparent discrepancies in videos and emails the outlet had submitted as evidence for its reporting.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came on Tuesday. One of the experts that Wire journalists said he had served as a technical consultant said he never helped with the wire’s reporting. The expert, Kanishk Karan, told The Washington Post that he was told that Wire staffer Devesh Kumar had shown his boss, Wire founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, an email from Karan supporting the claims. Kumar reports. But Karan had never sent that email, he said.

Karan did not accuse Kumar of fabricating the email. But, he said, “I don’t know who created it. It is a false imitation of me used in the story without my knowledge or consent.”

Kumar said: “I’m not sure what happened between me and Kanishk, but I’ll get to the bottom of it. … I am not hiding anything.”

In a statement, The Wire said: “In light of the experts’ doubts and concerns about some of this material and about the verification processes we use, including messages sent to us by two experts who deny making any evaluations of that process directly and indirectly attributed to in our third story: we are conducting an internal review of the materials at our disposal.” He added that he would remove their stories “from public view.”

With a staff of some two dozen people, The Wire has often been praised as a rare voice of journalistic courage at a time when many Indian media outlets, particularly broadcasters, are moving to the government line. And Varadarajan, the publisher, was not only seen as a thorn in the government’s side, but also as a likely target of surveillance. In 2021, a forensic analysis by Amnesty International found that Varadarajan’s phone was infected with Pegasus spyware, which is sold only to government customers.

(The Wire was a reporting partner for The Washington Post and other news organizations on Project Pegasus, a global investigation into government spyware, last year.)

Growing doubts about the integrity and accuracy of The Wire have damaged the credibility “of an independent and reliable news platform that India needs today,” said Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi.

“This outcome is tragic,” Gupta said, “because it has concentrated public energy [more] in The Wire’s fact-checking than continuing the need for human rights assessments of Silicon Valley platforms.”

The saga has been particularly charged in India because it touches on one of the biggest criticisms Silicon Valley has faced in recent years: that powerful companies, including Meta, have abetted abuse and misinformation around the world and facilitated censorship by part of authoritarian governments.

In India, a massive and important internet market, Meta has been accused for years of turning a blind eye to hate speech by government supporters against India’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Meta has also been accused of being too deferential to the government when it comes to content moderation decisions. In 2020, a top Meta executive in India resigned after the Wall Street Journal reported that he warned his staff not to apply hate speech rules to Hindu nationalist figures linked to the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Minister Narendra Modi.

The Wire seemed to confirm those longstanding suspicions when it published a damning story on October 1. 10 alleging that Meta granted special privileges to Amit Malviya, who heads the BJP’s IT department and social media efforts, as part of the company’s internal “cross-checking” program, which shields VIP users from normal procedures word application. According to The Wire, Instagram logs leaked by a Meta employee showed that Instagram removed a post lampooning a BJP politician simply because Malviya had reported it.

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The report was quickly praised by critics of the Indian government and Meta. But Facebook strongly denied the report, saying the post was removed by Instagram’s algorithm and not because of the intervention of BJP officials.

Other skeptics have also independently expressed skepticism about The Wire.

First, critics of the report said, the “cross-checking” program, revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2021, did not give VIPs the power to remove posts.

Additionally, the Instagram logs released by The Wire did not appear to be from a genuine internal website used by Instagram employees, according to Meta. Prominent former employees, including his former security chief Alex Stamos, who has criticized the company since his departure, also openly raised the possibility that the document was forged.

A day later, The Wire defended its report by publishing an internal email allegedly sent by Andy Stone, a Meta spokesman, in which he responded angrily to the Wire report and demanded that his colleagues take action to identify the employee who had leaked the reports. Instagram records. . Again, Meta said that The Wire’s second big scoop, the alleged Stone email, was also fabricated.

This set off a frenzy of digital speculation and investigations in India and Silicon Valley as cybersecurity experts publicly weighed how the authenticity of Stone’s alleged email should, and could, be verified by examining the code within an email message header. Several technical experts in both countries offered to help The Wire carry out the verification. Others who knew Stone pointed out on social media that the email did not fit the writing style of the Meta spokesperson, nor the style of an American English speaker.

On Saturday, The Wire published what it said was more technical evidence that the email was written by Stone and that he had consulted two independent experts to reach that conclusion. But The Wire’s test, which included a video, only raised more questions.

The video “has no evidentiary value,” said Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins University professor and cryptography expert, who offered to examine the email for The Wire. Varadarajan discussed Green’s offer with him but did not accept it, Green said.

The Wire also posted screenshots of emails it said were from independent experts vouching for their authenticity, but those emails showed incorrect dates of 2021. The images were edited to show the correct dates after the story was published. , but not before readers spotted the bug, which Wire reporter Kumar publicly attributed on Twitter to a software glitch.

“None of this makes sense to me,” Green said, referring to The Wire’s explanations of the discrepancies.

Stamos and a few other insiders said they thought The Wire likely had a source inside Meta with technological access who crafted apparently authentic documents. Stamos told The Post that the publication’s staff may have been misled initially before collaborating to cover it up.

Meta complicated his rebuttal by claiming that Stone did not use the email address to which The Wire attributed his outburst. Journalists at The Post and elsewhere had received emails from that address as recently as last month.

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For Pranesh Prakash, co-founder of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore, who has publicly questioned the veracity of The Wire’s reporting on social media, his growing doubts came to a head on Tuesday. Varadarajan, the Wire’s editor, had told Prakash that Wire reporters had consulted Karan as a technical expert and had assured him that his reporting was solid, Prakash recalled.

But when Prakash spoke to Karan, Karan said he had never emailed Kumar offering his opinion. That’s when Prakash and Karan decided to take on The Wire, who then released their review.

Prakash said he believed that Varadarajan maintained his personal integrity despite his post failing to fulfill his journalistic responsibility. Many in India and abroad reprimanded Prakash and others for asking questions about The Wire’s work, he said.

“There is this propensity to see everything as right versus left, and the need to assess everything from that perspective,” he said. “One of the stumbling blocks of the media ecosystem and the political ecosystem in India is tribalism.”

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