Claims and outrageous counter-claims — explaining the tussle between The Wire, an Indian news and opinion website, and American multinational technology company Meta.
The Wire-Meta saga leads to many unanswered questions, almost all of which question the veracity of The Wire's story.
Moreover, the chronology of events and the questions arising from it suggest that the original story, as well as the subsequent ones, published in The Wire could be fabricated.
Here we look at the sequence of events and the unanswered questions they throw up.
As It Happened
>> 10 October: The Wire publishes a report which alleges that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Amit Malviya enjoys special privileges with respect to Instagram.
Malviya is the head of the BJP's National Information & Technology Department, also known as the ‘IT cell’ of the party.
The Wire alleges that the privileges enjoyed by Malviya’s Instagram account were such that if he ‘reported’ a post on the platform, it would be taken down by Instagram, no questions asked.
This is because Malviya is allegedly on Meta’s cross-check or ‘X-check’ list. As per The Wire, profiles which are on this list are not subjected to rules for general users.
'Meta' is the parent company of Instagram. It runs Facebook and WhatsApp too.
In support of its claim, The Wire shares screenshots of a supposed internal document of Meta which the news website claims to have accessed.
This document was a report on the take-down of an Instagram post allegedly "reported" by Malviya.
The underlying implication here, of course, is that the BJP government is hand in glove with big tech and is unleashing unprecedented censorship on Indian citizens.
>> 11 October: Andy Stone from Communications at Meta responds to The Wire story on Twitter. This is Meta's first response.
Stone dismisses the The Wire report.
He says the X-check list has nothing to do with reporting posts.
The posts that The Wire claimed were taken down due to Malviya’s intervention were actually removed by automated systems, he says.
Importantly, Stone claims that the screenshots shared by The Wire appear to be fabricated.
The Wire publishes another article on the story in which it counters Stone.
In its report, The Wire posts a screenshot of an internal email that Stone had purportedly sent to his team.
In the image shared, the ‘sender’ is seen asking how an internal Instagram report got leaked.
This referred to the company report on the Instagram post takedown, shared by The Wire earlier.
The sender of this email also asks for Siddharth Varadarajan and Jahnavi Sen, the co-authors of the 10 October story, to be put on a watchlist.
>> 12 October: The story snowballs into a major controversy for The Wire after Meta makes damning allegations in response.
Meta calls out The Wire for the screenshot they had shared in their 11 October story.
Two email addresses are visible in the screenshot. As per Meta’s statement, both email ids are fake. Ergo, no email, as claimed by The Wire, went from Andy Stone to his team.
Meta also denied any existence of a ‘watchlist’.
Notably, a day earlier, Guy Rosen, the Chief Information Security Officer at Meta, made similar points in a Twitter thread.
Rosen concluded: “Let’s hope @thewire_in is the victim not the perpetrator of this hoax.”
>> 15 October: The Wire publishes an article rebutting Meta’s statement. It makes two important claims:
Stone’s email address, as visible in a screenshot, is genuine, and hence his email is genuine.
The Instagram post takedown report, referred to in the 10 October story, is also genuine.
A barrage of questions now descends on The Wire.
The email address
The Wire shared a video as part of its story published on 15 October. The video claimed to verify the authenticity of Stone’s email address through a DKIM verification.
On 16 October, Twitter user "Sasank" posts a video which shows that the results obtained in The Wire’s video can very well be obtained for a non-existent email address as well.
Ergo, the video posted by The Wire did nothing to prove the authenticity of Stone’s email ID.
Author Arnab Ray also points out that a DKIM verification at best says that an email came from an organisation. It does not show who the email came from, and does not rule out an insider impersonating someone else.
The crux of the matter in this and other such Twitter threads is that the video posted by The Wire does not support the portal's claim that the email in question is indeed sent by Stone.
This is in addition to the observation made by some on social media that the language used by the 'sender' of the email is conspicuously 'Indian English' and does not resemble how an American executive would normally address his team.
However, it was not just the video. The Wire also posted screenshots of two ‘independent domain experts’ who reportedly confirmed and validated the verification process referred to earlier.
One of the ‘experts’ is associated with Microsoft. He sent his confirmation through his official email address.
This puts his approval into question as it translates to Microsoft having a vested interest in trying to put down a rival, Meta.
Notably, Varadarajan, the editor of The Wire, had first tweeted about this ‘expert’s’ confirmation, but later deleted his tweet.
There's more. It soon appeared that the screenshots posted of the two experts’ confirmation were most likely doctored.
The year mentioned in the emails received from the two experts and shared in the original version of The Wire’s 15 October story was 2021.
Soon, a new image was found in the article. Here, the year was corrected to 2022. At the minimum, it suggests doctoring of images.
The Wire's side claimed that the discrepancy was because the receiver was using a particular operating system (OS) meant for privacy and that led to the discrepancy.
This seems improbable since the original screenshots had the year wrong, but the day and date were correct. If an OS is still following last year’s calendar, why will it show the day and date of this year?
The report on the Instagram post takedown
In its first, 10 October story, The Wire had shared screenshots of an internal Instagram report. The report allegedly showed Malviya’s ‘cross-check’ privilege.
In its statement from 12 October, Meta said the “report” was fabricated and the URL shown in it was no longer in use.
In its article of 15 October, The Wire shared a video which supposedly showed that the URL was active, implying that its ‘report’ was genuine.
Here comes the crazy part. Meta's Rosen took to Twitter on 15 October and said the video put out by The Wire was, in fact, a ‘spoof’ created using Meta’s own Workplace product.
Rosen claimed that Meta’s investigation had revealed that the ‘spoof’ was created on 13 October, three days The Wire published its first report on the matter.
Rosen’s tweet led to the damning implication that The Wire used Meta’s own tools to create a ‘spoof’ to implicate Meta.
>> 15 October: The profile @cringearchivist, whose Instagram post Malviya supposedly got taken down, revealed that:
The visibility settings on his Instagram account were set to ‘private’ since April.
Malviya was his his follower on the date of the post.
This implies that Malviya would never have seen the post he is supposed to have specially taken down in the first place.
To sum up, here are the allegations against The Wire, as made by Meta and independent domain experts:
The opinion website made false claims about internal emails being sent within Meta.
They doctored screenshots to prove it.
They created a ‘spoof’ and tried to pass it off as a genuine tool used by Instagram so as to validate their story.
>> 17 October: The Wire puts out a statement which suggests that they will not be putting out more articles on the issue for the time being.
This is being done primarily to protect the identity of its sources in Meta, the statement said.
A previous version of the statement had referred to a personal relationship between a Meta insider and an employee at The Wire. The reference was later removed.
Here are questions that arise from the sequence of events, apart from those already posed to The Wire over social media.
One, did The Wire ask its source in Meta about other Indian accounts on the ‘cross-check’ list?
The Wire’s own report of 10 October quotes a Wall Street Journal report which says that globally there are around 58 lakh people on the list. The Wire says Malviya’s name is the first one to come out of South Asia.
Were the Meta sources asked which other Indians were on the list? If yes, The Wire could have mentioned it in their story and quoted the response of the source, or stated whether the source had declined to respond.
If not, why was the question not considered to be of journalistic value? Surely, the people of India as well as those concerned about India deserve to know which Indians enjoy privileged access to Instagram and Facebook.
This question, by itself, does not prove or disprove The Wire’s 10 October story, but it does leave a very obvious, natural question unaddressed.
Two, when The Wire referred to a personal relationship between its staffer and a Meta insider, did it not make it easier for Meta to locate the insider?
Either there is no insider or The Wire almost blew the individual's cover in a statement meant to do the opposite.
Three, it is shown that Malviya could not even view the post that was taken down by Instagram. In that context, why did The Wire's reporter not pose this question to her source?
If the taking down of a post is fundamental to your story, why not confirm if the person who allegedly forced Instagram to take it down could see it in the first place?
As of today, here’s where The Wire-Meta story stands. Neither side has asserted as yet that they would take legal action against the other.
What's also noteworthy is that Meta’s politics and worldview overlaps, to a large degree, with that of The Wire. This makes the story even more intriguing.
>>18 October update
In a sensational revelation, Pranesh Prakash, who runs the handle @pranesh on Twitter has claimed that one of the experts who is supposed to have verified The Wire's verification process of Andy Stone's email id, has said that he never undertook any such task for Wire.
Prakash says in his tweet that the identity of this expert was shared with him by Wire editor, Siddharth Varadarajan himself.
Additionally, Prakash also claimed that another expert who The Wire referred to in its article of 15 October has asked for all references to him to be deleted.
The Wire purportedly runs a DKIM verification and says that Andy Stone's email id, as shown in its article, is genuine.
It attaches screenshots of two domain experts who apparently verified The Wire's process.
Today, however, one of the experts has virtually dissociated himself from the story and the other has apparently claimed that he is not associated with the story at all.
>>18 October evening update
The Wire withholds its stories on Meta from public view.
All the stories withheld carry a statement which reads that the article has been 'suspended from public view pending the outcome of an internal review process'.
Prior to this, The Wire put out a statement which said the portal would be undertaking a 'review' of its Meta coverage and that its reports on Meta would be withheld from public view in this time.
A few minutes prior to this, one of the experts cited in Wire's story took to Twitter to say that the Wire article had used a fake email to impersonate him and that he had never worked on the Wire's DKIM verification process.
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