The bizarre saga of Meta, The Wire and their fight over Indian content moderation

It all started with an Instagram post.

Nathan Frandino / reuters

When a journalist at The Wire, an independent Indian publication, published a story on October 6th about a meme page’s claim that their Instagram post had been wrongfully removed, it hardly seemed like the kind of story that would draw much attention. The Instagram account, @cringearchivist, was a private account with fewer than 1,000 followers. The fact that their post, a satirical image depicting an Indian government official, was removed for breaking the app’s rules around sexual activity — despite showing nothing of the sort — was odd, but not the kind of thing that might draw international attention.

But in an increasingly bizarre turn of events, the nonprofit newsroom began publishing stories with more explosive claims about what it alleged led up to the removal of @cringearchivist’s post. And, in an even more unusual move, Meta not only refuted the claims but said the publication’s reporting was based on “fabricated” evidence and likely the result of some kind of elaborate hoax.

What happened?

After the initial story on the Instagram takedown, The Wire then started looking more closely at what happened. After not getting a response from Meta, reporters started asking around with sources inside the company. According to what one reporter for The Wire told NewsLaundry, sources within Meta told them the post had been removed not by Instagram’s moderators but at the behest of Amit Malviya, an official in India’s ruling BJP party who oversees its IT cell.

The Wire then published a followup to its original story on October 10th, with the headline “Exclusive: If BJP’s Amit Malviya Reports Your Post, Instagram Will Take it Down – No Questions Asked.” The story alleged that Malviya had the power to remove Instagram posts thanks to Meta’s controversial cross-check program, which has been credited with shielding high-profile celebrities and politicians from the company’s rules.

It was an explosive allegation. While cross-check has received plenty of scrutiny, no previous reporting had indicated that those privileges might extend to the ability for those outside the company to influence content takedowns.

Meta immediately refuted the story. Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said that cross-check had “nothing to do with the ability to report posts" and that the original Instagram post was removed due to Instagram's automated tools. He also said that “the underlying documentation appears to be fabricated.”

Rather than backing down, though, The Wire published a new story the next day, this one featuring an email – supposedly sent by Stone — in which the comms official blasted staff for allowing the documents to “leak.” But the supposed email only raised more questions about The Wire’s reporting. Most glaringly, the grammar and syntax in the messages was… strange. It used phrases like “for the last one month” and “post which I will tweet about it.” Journalists who cover Meta and frequently interact with Stone pointed out that not only did it not sound like him, it didn’t sound as if it was written by a native English speaker.

Stone also denied sending the email, and again said The Wire seemed to be relying on faked documents. Meta also published its own rebuttal on October 12th. The screenshots, according to the company, were fabricated. The @cringearchivist posts in question were removed by the company’s automated systems, not a human, much less an Indian government official. “We hope that The Wire is the victim of this hoax, not the perpetrator,” the company wrote.

Once again, The Wire responded that it wasn’t backing down. On October 15th, it published yet another story, titled “Meta Said Damaging Internal Email is ‘Fake’, URL 'Not in Use', Here's Evidence They're Wrong.” The lengthy post included several technical explanations about how the alleged emails from Stone were analyzed and verified. It also cited emails from independent security researchers who allegedly backed up their analysis. And, crucially, it included a screen recording from Meta’s Workplace software that allegedly showed proof of the takedown requests.

But, again, The Wire’s supposed evidence only raised new questions about its sources. On October 16th, Meta weighed in again. This time, the company said that an internal investigation revealed the alleged Workplace video was created from a Workplace account created with a free trial of the software on October 13th.

“At this time, we can confirm that the video shared by The Wire that purports to show an internal Instagram system (and which the Wire claims is evidence that their false allegations are true) in fact depicts an externally-created Meta Workplace account that was deliberately set up with Instagram’s name and brand insignia in order to deceive people,” the company wrote. “It is not an internal account. 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.”

And, once again, The Wire said it was standing by its reporting. In a statement on October 17th, the publication essentially said it would no longer engage with Meta on the topic. The publication accused the company of attempting to “goad” them into revealing its sources. “We are not prepared to play this game any further,” it said.

Meanwhile, the alleged proof provided by The Wire continued to fall apart. And one of the security researchers who The Wire said had backed up their verification said he had never sent the messages it cited in its reporting.

On October 18th, the publication reversed course, saying it would review its reporting, and would pull the stories from public view while it investigated. “This will include a review of all documents, source material and sources used for our stories on Meta,” The Wire wrote in a statement. “Based on our sources’ consent, we are also exploring the option of sharing original files with trusted and reputed domain experts as part of this process.”

Now what?

At this point, there are still more questions than answers about how and why The Wire’s reporting went so wrong. It’s clear there are serious issues with the “evidence'' it relied on, though it’s not clear whether it intentionally lied or if it was misled as part of some broader scheme. The publication has said numerous times it relied on two separate sources, which suggests the whole thing is more complex than one bad source.

More information is likely to come out in the coming days and weeks as The Wire and others now look more closely at how the story got so out of control. But there’s a reason why the stakes in this particular incident feel so high. India ranks 150 out of 180 in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. And The Wire, a nonprofit publication, is one of a shrinking number of independent newsrooms in the country.

It’s also worth pointing out that some elements of this saga point to real and serious issues about Meta’s policies and how they impact its billions of users. For one, the entire situation began with something many people have experienced: a content moderation decision gone awry due to a mistake in the company’s automated systems. Amid all the back and forth, Instagram ended up reinstating the original Story post from @cringearchivist that had kicked off The Wire’s investigation.

There’s also the fact that Meta has been less than forthcoming about its cross-check rules for celebrities, politicians and other VIPs. Many details we now know about the program only came to light thanks to a company whistleblower and other investigative reporting into the company. The company’s own Oversight Board, which has been working on an advisory opinion for nearly a year about the program, even accused the company of misleading it about the program.

And while there continues to be no evidence that cross-check would enable a company outsider to initiate content takedowns, journalists and activists have long raised questions about whether Meta gives too much leeway to India’s BJP in other policy decisions.

Put all that together and it becomes clear why a publication like The Wire might be so invested in a story like this in the first place. “Our recent coverage of Meta began with an incident that reflected the lack of transparency at the social media giant and its various platforms,” The Wire wrote in its most recent statement. Unfortunately, its own reporting has so far only made things more opaque.

Update 10/28: After officially retracting its stories about Meta, The Wire said in a new statement that it fell victim to a "deception" by "a member of our Meta investigation team." The note didn't identify the staffer, but said "the person responsible is no longer associated with The Wire in any capacity."

"The Wire acknowledges that the internal editorial processes which preceded publication of these stories did not meet the standards that The Wire sets for itself and its readers expect from it. To have rushed to publish a story we believed was reliable without having the associated technical evidence vetted independently is a failure of which we cannot permit repetition."

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