The Media Today

Meta and The Wire point fingers

October 13, 2022
Seen on the screen of a device in Sausalito, Calif., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces their new name, Meta, during a virtual event on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Zuckerberg talked up his latest passion -- creating a virtual reality "metaverse" for business, entertainment and meaningful social interactions. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

On Monday, Jahnavi Sen—deputy editor of The Wire, an independent news outlet in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social media manager for India’s ruling political party, was able to order the removal of Instagram posts, regardless of their content, by flagging them through the service’s reporting system. An internal Instagram report reviewed by The Wire “makes clear that the reported post was taken down immediately without any of the company’s moderators looking at it,” the site wrote, adding that any post flagged by Malviya was treated the same way: “an immediate removal from the platform, no questions asked.” A source at Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, told The Wire that Malviya reported more than seven hundred posts in September, all of which were removed. The Wire’s story included a copy of the internal report, which it said confirmed Malviya’s ability to remove content from the platforms, and which included timestamps, allegedly corresponding to when posts were removed, that said, “Review not required. Reason: Reporting user has XCheck privileges.”

According to The Wire, these takedowns were allowed because Malviya is part of a Meta program called X Check or Cross Check, whose existence was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in September 2021, as part of the paper’s reporting on a trove of documents released by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook security staffer turned whistleblower. Under the Cross Check program, the Journal reported, “some users are ‘whitelisted’—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.” (The Journal’s reporting did not mention allowances for political figures to order content removal from Facebook or Instagram.)

In a response to The Wire, Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said the Cross Check program “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts.” He added that all of the posts mentioned by The Wire “were surfaced for review by automated systems,” and suggested that the document upon which its story is based “appears to be fabricated.” In a follow-up story on Tuesday, Sen and Siddharth Varadarajan, a cofounder of The Wire, published a screenshot of what they said was an internal email from Stone, which The Wire said was provided by a source at Meta. The email demands to know “how the hell” the internal document about the Instagram takedowns got leaked, and asks for an activity report on the document. The email also asks that a staff member contact Sen and get more information about the document and how it was leaked; according to The Wire’s report, Sen got calls and WhatsApp messages from a member of Meta’s communications team in India within thirty minutes of the email allegedly being sent.

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Following that story, however, Guy Rosen, chief information security officer for Meta, wrote in a Twitter thread that the Stone email cited by The Wire in its follow-up was also fake. “The supposed email address from which it was sent isn’t even Stone’s current email address, and the ‘to’ address isn’t one we use here either,” Rosen wrote. “There is no such email.” In the same thread, Rosen wrote that The Wire inaccurately described the Cross Check program, and denied that Meta maintains an “internal journalist ‘watchlist.’”

A number of journalists and security experts expressed skepticism of The Wire’s reports. Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Facebook, wrote that the news site had “just destroyed their credibility,” speculating that the site may have been taken in by a misinformation operation designed to make them look untrustworthy. (“Free tip for journalists,” Stamos added. “If somebody leaks a discoverable corporate email from an FB comms person with a decade working in political campaigns reading ‘How did we get caught doing the bad thing! Oh no, we are guilty and it is bad!’… then you are probably getting played.”) Shoshana Wodinsky, a reporter with CBS Marketwatch, noted that the internal address the Instagram document allegedly came from “isn’t a URL that exists,” and that the email address Stone used is also incorrect, since it comes from an address ending in @fb and he would probably be using one ending in @meta. 

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Ben Collins, a senior reporter at NBC News, said in his view the documents “don’t pass the smell test,” and Paris Martineau, a reporter with The Information, said that the screenshot of the email that allegedly came from Stone “looks incredibly fake,” noting what she said were “mismatched sender formatting, improperly aligned like button, and syntax that is rare from an english speaker.” Sophie Zhang, another Facebook whistleblower who leaked documents about the company’s failure to crack down on abuse of its systems, also expressed skepticism about the report, noting what she termed “a number of discrepancies in the reporting/docs,” and wrote that she was “inclined to believe” Meta’s argument that the documents in The Wire’s stories were fabricated. Zhang said the company didn’t try to argue that her documents were fake; rather, she said, they just refused to comment. 

The Wire has stood by its reporting. Varadarajan responded to skepticism of his outlet’s work by calling allegations that The Wire had been “played by unknown elements out to discredit us…ridiculous” and writing that all its stories “came from multiple Meta sources—whom we know, have met & verified.” He promised to provide more evidence, in a story to be published today; at press time, that story had not been published.

Here’s more on Meta:

  • Painful: Meta promoted its vision of the metaverse during its annual Connect conference on Tuesday, but not everyone was impressed. Darrell Etherington, a technology reporter with TechCrunch, called it “painful how hellbent Mark Zuckerberg is on convincing us that VR is a thing.” Etherington wrote that the company “announced a lot of stuff, but what it communicated more effectively than anything else was just how incredibly thirsty—one might even say desperate—Mark Zuckerberg is for his metaverse bet to pay off.” Parmy Olson wrote for Bloomberg that Meta’s “pivot to the metaverse may well go down as one of the greatest corporate strategic errors of our time.”
  • Dog food: Meta’s virtual social network, Horizon Worlds, is suffering from so many quality issues that even the team building it isn’t using it very much, according to internal memos obtained by The Verge. In a memo to employees, Vishal Shah, Meta’s vice president of Metaverse, said, “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly. Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?” In a follow-up memo, Shah said managers would be “held accountable” if they didn’t get their staff to use it at least once a week.
  • Hijack: Meta warned one million of its users that their account information may have been compromised by third-party apps from Apple’s or Google’s stores, according to Engadget. “The company’s security researchers say that in the last year they’ve identified more than 400 scammy apps designed to hijack users’ Facebook account credentials,” the site reported. According to the company, the apps were disguised as fun or useful services, like photo editors or horoscopes, which required users to log in with Facebook but in the process stole users’ Facebook account information.


Other notable stories:

  • A Connecticut court has ordered Alex Jones to pay the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims close to a billion dollars in damages for claiming that the shooting was a hoax and the victims were “crisis actors.” Jones’s Free Speech Systems LLC, the company that owns his InfoWars website, previously filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • In an excerpt from her new book, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, Margaret Sullivan, former media columnist for the Washington Post, writes that reporters and editors “need to take a hard, critical look at the types of stories that constitute traditional campaign coverage,” which often relies on “live footage of speeches, rallies and debates; on ‘horse race’ articles based on polls or conventional wisdom; and on blowing up small conflicts into major stories.” Such coverage, Sullivan writes, “can have the effect of normalizing a candidate who should not be normalized.”
  • Sui Lee Wee profiled the literary magazine Oway, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Myanmar, for the New York Times. The site is run by a team of young journalists and writers who use pseudonyms to protect themselves from being targeted by police or government authorities. Myanmar has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work since the military seized power in a coup last year: close to sixty reporters are in prison, according to a Facebook group for journalists detained there, and more than one hundred and forty journalists have been arrested.
  • Intelligence officers in Somalia arrested Ahmed Mumin, a press rights advocate and freelance journalist, on Tuesday, reported the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mumin, the cofounder and secretary-general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate, participated in a press conference at the syndicate’s office where he and five local press rights groups condemned a vaguely worded government directive banning the “dissemination of extremism ideology.” Intelligence officers raided the syndicate’s offices on Monday, and Somali reporters say Mumin was targeted for objecting to the directive.
  • John Skipper, the former president of ESPN and founder of Meadowlark Media, a content studio, announced plans for a multiplatform series called Sports Explains the World, to be launched early next year. The series will emulate ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, with thirty documentaries and forty-five podcast episodes that “reveal greater truths about the world and society” through sports-related stories. 
  • TikTok takes up to 70 percent of the proceeds from livestreams made by displaced families in Syrian refugee camps who are asking for donations, a BBC investigation found. The BBC also described how “TikTok middlemen” provide families with the phones and equipment to broadcast live, adding that “these agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers and encourage users to spend more time on the app.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.