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 news outlet, seemed to deal explosive blow after blow at Meta, the social media giant that owns Instagram and Facebook.

The California-based company has given an influential Indian ruling party official extraordinary powers to censor Instagram posts he doesn’t like, The Wire reported, citing a document leaked by a meta-insider. A day later, The Wire reported that meta executives were trying to find the mole that leaked the story, citing a new internal email obtained by the publication.

After meta executives denied both reports on social media – and in an unusual move, insisted that The Wire’s documents appeared to be fake – The Wire on Saturday published a lengthy rebuttal that the outlet said they all would dispel doubts about their reporting.

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

The publication said on Tuesday it had launched an internal review of its stories on Meta, adding a new twist to a sensational row between a reputable Indian news organization and a powerful Silicon Valley company – a clash that has rocked the tech and media industries in India and India has cast its spell on the United States.

The investigation comes after a bitter week in which Meta and The Wire accused each other of forgery. But Wire’s editors were pressured to review their work after technology experts in both countries pointed to a growing list of apparent discrepancies in videos and emails the company had provided as evidence of its coverage.

The last straw came on Tuesday. One of the experts Wire journalists said had served as a technical advisor said he never helped with the outlet’s reporting. Expert Kanishk Karan told the Washington Post he was informed that Wire contributor Devesh Kumar had shown his boss, Wire founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, an email from Karan supporting Kumar’s reporting. But Karan never sent that email, he said.

Karan did not blame Kumar for inventing email. But he said, “I don’t know who created it. It is a fake identity of mine being used in the story without my knowledge or consent.”

Kumar said: “I don’t have any clarity as to what happened between Kanishk and I, but I’ll get to the bottom of it. … I’m not hiding anything.”

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In a statement, The Wire said: “Given doubts and concerns from experts regarding some of these materials and regarding the verification processes we use – including messages to us from two experts who deny directly and indirectly attributing assessments to that process to them.” in our third story – we are conducting an internal review of the materials available to us.” It added that it would “remove from public view” its stories.

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

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

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

“This outcome is tragic,” Gupta said, “because it focused public energy [more] in fact-checking on The Wire rather than continuing the need for human rights assessments from Silicon Valley platforms.”

The saga has been particularly charged in India for touching on one of the biggest criticisms Silicon Valley has faced in recent years – that powerful corporations, including Meta, encourage abuse and disinformation around the world and facilitate censorship by authoritarian governments to have.

In India, a huge and important internet market, Meta has been accused for years of ignoring hate speech by government supporters against India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims. Meta has also been accused of being overly deferential to the government when it comes to content moderation decisions. In 2020, a senior meta-executive in India resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that she had warned her staff against enforcing hate speech against Hindu nationalist figures linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). stand.

The Wire seemed to confirm those longstanding suspicions when it published a scathing story on Oct. 10 claiming that Meta had killed Amit Malviya, the BJP’s head of IT and social media efforts, as part of the internal The company’s “counter-checking” program that protects VIP users from common language enforcement procedures. According to The Wire, Instagram footage leaked by a Meta staffer showed that Instagram removed a post mocking a BJP politician simply because it had been reported by Malviya.

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

Other doubters have also independently expressed their skepticism about The Wire.

First, critics of the report said the “cross-check” program — unveiled by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and published by the Wall Street Journal in 2021 — is not known for giving VIPs the power to remove posts.

Additionally, according to the Meta, the Instagram records released by The Wire do not appear to be from a genuine internal website used by Instagram employees. Prominent former employees, including former security chief Alex Stamos, who has been critical of the company since leaving, also openly raised the possibility of the document being forged.

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

This sparked a wave of speculation and digital sleuthing in India and Silicon Valley as cybersecurity experts publicly debated how to verify the authenticity of Stone’s purported email by examining the code in the header of an email message – and could. Several technical experts in both countries offered to help The Wire with the review. Others who knew Stone took to social media to point out that the email didn’t reflect the meta speaker’s writing style — or the style of an American English speaker.

On Saturday, The Wire published more technical evidence that the email was actually written by Stone and that she had consulted two independent experts to reach that conclusion. But evidence from The Wire, which included video, only raised more questions.

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

The Wire also published screenshots of emails claiming to be from independent experts who vouched for their authenticity, but those emails showed incorrect dates from 2021. The images were edited to show the correct dates after the story went public but not before readers spotted the bug, which Wire journalist Kumar publicly cited as a software issue on Twitter.

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

Stamos and some other experts said they thought it likely The Wire had a source within Meta with technological access who created authentic-looking documents. Stamos told The Post that the publication’s staff may have been deceived at first before collaborating to cover it up.

Meta complicated his rebuttal by claiming that Stone didn’t use the email address that The Wire attributed his outburst to. Journalists at The Post and elsewhere had received emails from this address just last month.

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

But when Prakash spoke to Karan, Karan said he never emailed Kumar with his opinion. At this point, Prakash and Karan decided to confront The Wire, which responded by launching its review.

Prakash said he believed Varadarajan had maintained his personal integrity even though his publication was not up to his journalistic responsibilities. Many in India and abroad blamed Prakash and others for asking questions about The Wire’s work, he said.

“There’s this tendency to see everything as right versus left and the need to evaluate everything from that lens,” he said. “One of the pitfalls of the media ecosystem and the political ecosystem in India is tribalism.”

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