Indian news site withdraws story critical of Meta, rattling journalists over unverified sources

Meta has been accused of coddling India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. PHOTO: AFP

BENGALURU - An Indian independent news website withdrew a major investigation into Meta recently after several technical experts said its evidence seemed inauthentic.

The events surrounding the report by The Wire have raised concerns among journalists in India about the capacity of local newsrooms in one of the largest social media markets to investigate Big Tech.

The issue is also closely watched as some initially thought The Wire, one of the few Indian media outlets critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, might have been the victim of an organised attempt to plant fake news. In 2018, Amnesty International said the phone of The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan was targeted with the Israeli spyware Pegasus, which is sold only to national governments.

The investigative story published on Oct 10 alleged that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, had allowed Mr Amit Malviya, the head of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) social media wing, to unilaterally get other users’ Instagram posts taken down. The Wire retracted its stories on Meta entirely on Oct 23.

“Given the discrepancies that have come to our attention via our review so far, The Wire will also conduct a thorough review of previous reporting done by the technical team involved in our Meta coverage,” said The Wire statement. 

The article alleged that Mr Malviya received his power from Meta’s XCheck programme, a review system that the social media firm says it uses to prevent posts of high-profile users from being removed.

If true, the article’s findings have worldwide ramifications: It means Meta granted more unprecedented privileges to high-profile users than was previously understood.

The Wire’s revelation went viral, in part because Mr Malviya is infamous for regularly sharing disinformation and hate speech videos himself.

Meta on its part has been accused of coddling the BJP government. The Wall Street Journal in 2020 reported that Meta had hired employees in India who lobbied against taking down hate speech by Hindu nationalists close to the government.

The Wire reporters said their Meta story was based on internal documents obtained from an unnamed source in the company. Meta issued a strong denial, saying “the underlying documentation” used in the piece “appears to be fabricated”.

When global and Indian tech experts raised questions about its report, The Wire published another story with a screenshot of what it claimed was an internal e-mail from Meta’s communications head Andy Stone. In it, he appeared to ask “how the hell” one of the cited documents “got leaked” and called for two Wire reporters to be placed “on watchlist”.

But that second story raised new doubts. Tech reporters said Mr Stone’s e-mail text did not sound like American English.

Meta’s chief information security officer Guy Rosen tweeted that the e-mail was “a fake”.

The Wire then shared what it said was a cryptographic verification of Mr Stone’s e-mail. It also claimed that two independent domain experts had confirmed that the e-mail came from Mr Stone’s address. But within two days, both quoted experts said screenshots of their e-mails had been falsified. 

Technical experts and journalists who have demanded accountability from Meta over its hate speech and disinformation policies asked why The Wire did not properly verify the sources and e-mails before publishing the story.

“I thought it could be a source burning The Wire, up until the Andy Stone e-mail and then the further rebuttals and expert e-mails. Those were created by The Wire and not the source,” said Mr Pranesh Prakash, co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru.

He said The Wire had been lax in fulfilling its editorial responsibilities. But he added that it had shown integrity by withdrawing the story pending review, “which few Indian media organisations do even if the stories are proven to be entirely false”.

Lawyer Apar Gupta, founder of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, said: “There is an urgent need for independent and thorough investigative journalism in India that holds big tech and social media companies like Meta accountable.”

He said he hoped the “immediate chilling effect” of The Wire’s mistakes will not last and that this would “be a genuine moment of reflection” for Indian newsrooms that will lead to instituting of better reporting and verification procedures.

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