Whistle in the Dark

What the Wire-Meta saga means for the future of tech-reporting

01 December, 2022

On 10 October 2022, the news website The Wire published a story alleging that Amit Malviya, the national convenor of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT department, had special privileges under Meta’s Cross-Check, or XCheck system—through which the organisation reviews content decisions on high-profile usersthat allowed him to get Instagram posts removed, regardless of whether they violated the platform’s guidelines. (Meta is the recently changed name of the social media company previously known as Facebook. It is the parent company for brands such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.) The XCheck system had previously been reported on, but was not known to include such sweeping powers earlier. The Wire’s first story included screenshots of an alleged internal Instagram report, which the publication claimed to have accessed through a source within the organisation. Andy Stone, a policy communications director at Meta, alleged that the supporting evidence in The Wire’s story “appears to be fabricated.”

The Wire published two follow-up reports, meant to bolster the credibility of their claim. The first of these contained screenshots of an alleged email from Stone to his colleagues, in which he questioned how The Wire had gotten access to documentation regarding Malviya’s account on Instagram. Once Meta and other independent experts began raising doubts regarding the veracity of this email, The Wire published its third story, claiming that it had conducted a technical test to authenticate Stone’s email, and that this test had been verified by two independent experts. Yet, both of these reports were also riddled with inconsistencies. For instance, the two experts The Wire had ostensibly reached out to for its third story denied having verified the material.

Nearly a fortnight after The Wire had published the first story, it withdrew all three reports pending an internal review of its coverage. On 29 October, The Wire filed a police complaint against Devesh Kumar, who had co-authored the third story and was a consultant with the publication from April 2021 to July 2022. The complaint accused Kumar of “fabrication and forgery of documents.” It claimed that he had been the main point of contact with the primary sources at Meta for these stories, and had misled his colleagues. A day later, after The Wire had withdrawn its reportage and issued an apology, the police—acting on a complaint filed by Malviya—conducted raids at the news organisation’s Delhi office and at the homes of its founding editors, its business head, as well as the journalist who had authored the first story, and co-authored the two stories that followed.

In November, Nikita Saxena, a contributing writer at The Caravan, spoke to Sophie Zhang—a former data scientist at Meta turned whistle blower. Zhang’s work has been instrumental in establishing that Meta did not act in a timely manner against numerous inauthentic networks that were likely influencing political outcomes in several countries, including India. Along with other independent experts and tech journalists, Zhang was an early and public sceptic of The Wire’s stories on this case. Speaking to Saxena, Zhang described her understanding of the three stories, as well as the potential fall-out of the misreporting for tech journalists and whistle blowers. An edited excerpt of Zhang’s responses is reproduced below.