Last week, The Wire, an independent news outlet based in India, reported that Amit Malviya, the social media manager for India’s ruling BJP party, was able to remove images posted by Instagram users without having to go through the platform’s normal moderation channels. As evidence, The Wire published an internal Instagram report that appeared to corroborate its reporting, with timestamps for when the images were removed, and a note that the usual moderation process wasn’t required because they were flagged by Malviya.
When Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, denied that this was possible and challenged the legitimacy of the documents at the center of The Wire’s reporting, The Wire published a second story, including a screenshot of what it said was an email from Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta. In the email, Stone seemed upset about the leak of the original report, and asked his staff to put the journalists who published The Wire’s initial story on a watchlist. In a response to that story, Guy Rosen, chief information security officer at Meta, wrote that the email from Stone as well as the internal Instagram report appeared to have been fabricated.
On Saturday, The Wire published a third story, in which it described the technical method it used to verify the email, and included a video showing the process. The story also included screenshots of emails sent by two unnamed internet security experts, who said they had reviewed a copy of the Stone email and the process The Wire used to verify it and were convinced it was genuine. Some reporters, however, noted that the emails from the experts were dated 2021, not 2022. Devesh Kumar, the Wire reporter who handled the verification story, said this was a simple mistake due to a glitch in his operating system.
In an interview with Platformer, Casey Newton’s technology newsletter, Jahnavi Sen, deputy editor of The Wire, said that someone from the news site met with one of the original sources for the internal Instagram report and that the source provided a number of documents to establish their identity, including their work badge and pay slips. Kumar told Platformer that when The Wire approached its original source about the Instagram takedowns, the source sent a copy of the internal report within twenty minutes. When The Wire reached out to a different source, they said they didn’t know anything about the Instagram report, but “they had insight into the discussions happening internally,” Newton and Zoë Schiffer wrote for Platformer. “Seven minutes later, the source responded with the email allegedly from Stone.”
Over the weekend, however, Kanishk Karan, one of the two unnamed internet security experts who supposedly verified Stone’s email for The Wire, wrote on Twitter that he never conducted any such review of the site’s research, and that a screenshot of his email that was used in The Wire’s story was a fake. (Karan said he was alerted to the story by Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, who called him to corroborate the report, after getting his contact information from The Wire.) The second expert who allegedly confirmed the veracity of the Stone email, identified by The Wire as a principal technical evangelist at Microsoft, also denied that he had performed any such review.
On Tuesday, the site took down all three of its articles on Meta and said that, in light of the “concerns and doubts” raised about its coverage, it was launching an internal review of “all documents, information, source material, and sources used for these stories.” (All of the links in this newsletter to The Wire’s stories are to copies that were saved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.) “Our recent coverage of Meta began with an incident that reflected the lack of transparency at the social media giant,” the company wrote. “But The Wire has an even greater responsibility to be transparent. And we intend to discharge that responsibility with full seriousness.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, one of The Wire’s cofounders, told Schiffer on Tuesday that Kumar was the only person who had met the site’s original source, but that he and a number of other reporters and editors had “interacted with” the second source, who provided the alleged Stone email and whom Varadarajan called “a longer-standing source of ours, going back four or five months.” The site’s note about the internal review of its stories mentioned that one of the sources for those reports had “supplied material that we have been using for a separate and ongoing investigation.”
Update 10/27/22: The Wire posted a note apologizing for its Meta stories, saying its internal editorial processes “did not meet the standards that we set for ourselves and our readers expect from us.” The note went on to say that the stories were a result of a “deception to which we were subjected by a member of our Meta investigation team,” and that the individual in question no longer works for The Wire.
Here’s more on Meta and The Wire:
- The scheme: In the interview with Platformer, Schiffer asked Varadarajan if he thought Kumar was “in on the scheme” to fabricate evidence, since he was the one in charge of verifying all the documents ahead of publication. “Nothing that I’ve seen would indicate that,” Varadarajan said. “I know people are saying this, but he’s been with us for many years, he’s a tech guy, and frankly…it just seems a little far-fetched.” Varadarajan also admitted that he was “not a technical guy,” and that this was a potential weakness. “Even if we set aside the allegation of malevolence, if one person doesn’t have the chops to handle all the complexities, that also becomes a point of failure,” he told Schiffer.
- Conspiracy: One of the frustrating things about the story, Newton wrote, is that “its details seemingly cannot be reconciled without embracing a conspiracy theory: that multiple people conspired to hoax The Wire; that one or more persons within The Wire committed the hoax themselves; or that multiple people within Meta conspired to falsely accuse a publication of fabricating documents.” As Newton points out, all of this is happening in a country whose authoritarian government has worked consistently to reduce press freedoms, and has been accused of using Pegasus surveillance software to track the activities of journalists, including those at The Wire.
- A sad place: Nitish Pahwa writes for Slate that to see The Wire caught up in accusations of faking news stories is “a huge blow” to journalism in India. “It’s a sad place for the Wire to end up,” he says. “Founded in 2015 by storied Indian journalists to act as a multilanguage news and opinion resource, the Wire had become one of the most dynamic Indian publications of the Modi years, a singular bulwark against the flood of false and propagandistic ‘news’ that took over so much of Indian media.”
- Inauthentic: Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist who leaked internal documents about the company last year, said it had allowed a network of fake accounts to inflate the popularity of a member of India’s ruling BJP party, even after Facebook was alerted to the problem. “The company was preparing to remove the fake accounts but paused when it found evidence that the politician was probably directly involved in the network,” The Guardian reported in 2021. Other senior members of the BJP have also escaped Facebook’s normal penalties for hate speech and offensive behavior in the past, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal in 2020.
Other notable stories:
- The New York Times profiled Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News Media, who is a central figure in a $1.6 billion lawsuit launched by Dominion Voting Systems, which accuses Fox executives of airing false information about its machines. “A judge has granted Dominion access to her emails and text messages from the period after the 2020 election when Fox anchors and guests amplified some of the most outrageous falsehoods about Dominion and its supposed role in a plot to steal the election,” the Times reports.
- Researchers from New York University and Vanderbilt University say in a newly published working paper that YouTube tends to push its viewers toward content on the conservative side of the political spectrum. “We found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm does not lead the vast majority of users down extremist rabbit holes,” the study’s authors write, but “does push users into increasingly narrow ideological ranges of content in what we might call evidence of a (very) mild ideological echo chamber.”
- A report from the Poynter Institute indicates that some independent news outlets are starting to feel the impacts of inflation. According to the institute’s survey, published on Wednesday, the cost of ink has increased by 10 to 15 percent this year, newsprint costs are up 30 percent or more, and fuel is up 50 percent. Evening Post, the parent company of Charleston’s Post and Courier, told Poynter it added a surcharge to print subscriptions in order to make up for the increase in gas prices. The Advocate and Times-Picayune in New Orleans said their cybersecurity insurance has also increased, and Minneapolis’s Star Tribune said healthcare costs have climbed.
- In a statement, the Thompson Reuters Foundation announced that it had rescinded an award given to Shatha Hammad, a Palestinian journalist, “following the discovery of a social media post on Hammad’s Facebook feed that appears to quote Hitler.”
- NPR interviewed Lina Abu Akleh, niece of the slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who has been lobbying for justice for her aunt. Investigative reports concluded Abu Akleh was killed by a member of the Israeli army, which the Israeli government said was an accident. Abu Akleh’s family alleges the veteran Al Jazeera reporter was deliberately targeted by Israeli forces. Lina “believes the US failed because it did not conduct a transparent and independent investigation into the killing of her aunt, a US citizen,” NPR writes.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kanishk Karan’s name, and misidentified the person who contacted him
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.