Dispute between The Wire and Meta over Instagram post roils India


NEW DELHI — Last week, The Wire, a small but gutsy Indian news outlet, seemed to land one explosive punch after another on Meta, the social media giant that owns Instagram and Facebook.

The California company had given an influential official from India’s ruling party the extraordinary power to censor Instagram posts that he didn’t like, The Wire reported, citing a document leaked by a Meta insider. A day later, The Wire reported that Meta executives were scrambling 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 released a lengthy rebuttal on Saturday that the outlet said would lay to rest any doubts about its reporting.

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

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

The investigation came after a bitter week during which Meta and The Wire accused each other of fabrication. But Wire editors were pressed to review their work after technology experts in both countries pointed out a mounting list of apparent discrepancies in videos and emails that the outlet had presented as proof of its reporting.

The final straw came Tuesday. One of the experts that Wire journalists said had served as a technical consultant said that he never helped with the outlet’s reporting. The expert, Kanishk Karan, told The Washington Post that he was informed that Wire staffer Devesh Kumar had showed his boss, Wire founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, an email from Karan that supported Kumar’s reporting. 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 fake impersonation of me used in the story without my knowledge or consent.”

Kumar said, “I have no clarity as to what happened between Kanishk and I, but I will get to the bottom of it. … I’m not hiding something.”

In a statement, The Wire said, “In the light of doubts and concerns from experts about some of this material, and about the verification processes we used — including messages to us by two experts denying making assessments of that process directly and indirectly attributed to them in our third story — we are undertaking an internal review of the materials at our disposal.” It added that it would remove its stories “from public view.”

With a staff of about two dozen people, The Wire has often been lauded as a rare voice of journalistic courage at a time when many Indian outlets, particularly television networks, hew close to the government’s line. And Varadarajan, the editor, was seen not only as a thorn in the government’s side but also a probable target of surveillance. In 2021, forensic analysis conducted by Amnesty International found that Varadarajan’s phone was infected with the Pegasus spyware, which is sold only to government clients.

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

The growing questions about The Wire’s integrity and accuracy have damaged the 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 has focused public energy [more] on fact-checking The Wire than continuing the need for human rights assessments of Silicon Valley platforms.”

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

In India, a massive and important internet market, Meta has for years been accused of turning a blind eye to hate speech made by government supporters against India’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Meta has also been accused of being overly deferential toward 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 she warned her staff against enforcing hate-speech rules upon Hindu nationalist figures linked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Wire seemed to confirm those long-standing suspicions when it published a damning story on Oct. 10 alleging Meta gave special privileges to Amit Malviya, who heads the BJP’s IT department and social media efforts, as part of the company’s internal “cross-check” program, which shields VIP users from usual speech enforcement procedures. According to The Wire, Instagram records leaked by a Meta employee showed that Instagram removed a post satirizing a BJP politician simply because it had been reported by Malviya.

As India marks its first 75 years, Gandhi is downplayed, even derided

The reporting was quickly praised by critics of the Indian government and of Meta. But Facebook strenuously denied the report, saying that the post was taken down by Instagram’s algorithm rather than through any intervention by BJP officials.

Other doubters have also independently voiced skepticism about The Wire.

First, critics of the report said, the “cross-check” program — revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2021 — was not known to grant VIPs the power to take down posts.

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

A day later, The Wire defended its reporting by publishing an internal email purportedly 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 Instagram records. Again, Meta said that The Wire’s second big scoop — Stone’s alleged email — was also fabricated.

This set off a frenzy of speculation and digital sleuthing in India and Silicon Valley as cybersecurity experts weighed in publicly on how the authenticity of the alleged email by Stone should — and could — be verified by examining the code within an email message’s header. Several technical experts in both countries offered to help The Wire conduct the verification. Others who knew Stone pointed out on social media that the email did not conform to the Meta spokesman’s writing style — or the style of an American English speaker.

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

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

The Wire also published screenshots of emails it said were from independent experts vouching for its authenticity, but those emails showed incorrect dates from 2021. The images were edited to show the correct dates after the story published, but not before readers caught the error, which the Wire journalist Kumar publicly attributed on Twitter to a software issue.

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

Stamos and some other experts said they thought it was probable that The Wire did have a source inside Meta with technological access who crafted authentic-seeming documents. Stamos told The Post that the publication’s staff may have been duped initially before collaborating in covering that up.

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

What it’s like to toil in India’s dangerous, unrelenting heat

For Pranesh Prakash, a tech policy expert at the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore who had publicly questioned the veracity of The Wire’s reporting on social media, 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 that their reporting was sound, Prakash recalled.

But when Prakash spoke to Karan, Karan said he had never sent an email to Kumar offering his opinion. That was when Prakash and Karan decided to confront The Wire, which then launched its review.

Prakash said he believed Varadarajan maintained his personal integrity even though his publication had failed its journalistic responsibility. Many in India and abroad rebuked Prakash and others for raising questions about The Wire’s work, he said.

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