The bizarre saga of Meta, The Wire and their fight over Indian content moderation

When a journalist at The cable, an independent Indian publication that ran a story on Oct. 6 about a meme site’s claim that its Instagram post had been unfairly removed, it hardly seemed like a story that would garner much attention. The @cringearchivist Instagram account was a private account with fewer than 1,000 followers. The fact that her post, a satirical image depicting an Indian government official, was removed for violating the app’s rules regarding sexual activity – although nothing of the sort was shown – was odd, but not what was international could attract attention.

But in an increasingly bizarre turn of events, the nonprofit newsroom began publishing stories with more explosive claims about what allegedly led to @cringearchivist’s post being removed. And in an even more unusual move, Meta not only refuted the claims, but said the publication’s reporting was based on “fabricated” evidence and was likely the result of some sort of sophisticated hoax.

What happened?

After the first story about the takedown on Instagram, The cable then began to take a closer look at what happened. After receiving no response from Meta, reporters began checking with sources within the company. After what a reporter for The cable said newslaundry, Sources inside Meta told them the post was not taken down by Instagram’s moderators, but at the behest of Amit Malviya, an official with the ruling BJP party in India who oversees their IT cell.

The cable then published a follow-up to his original story on Oct. 10, with the caption, “Exclusive: If BJP’s Amit Malviya flags your post, Instagram will take it down – no questions asked.” The story claimed that Malviya had the power to censor Instagram posts remove, thanks to Meta’s controversial cross-check program, which is credited with shielding high-profile celebrities and politicians from the company’s rules.

It was an explosive allegation. Although cross-checking has been extensively reviewed, there was no indication in previous reports that these privileges might extend to the ability for people outside the company to influence content removal.

Meta immediately refuted the story. Meta spokesman Andy Stone said that the cross-check “is unrelated to the ability to report posts” and that the original Instagram post was removed due to Instagram’s automated tools. He also said that “the underlying documentation appears to be fake”.

However, instead of backing down The cable published a new story the next day, this one involving an email — allegedly from Stone — in which the communications officer blasted employees for “leaking” the documents. But the alleged email only raised more questions too the wires Reporting. Most notable was the grammar and syntax in the messages… odd. Expressions like “for the last month” and “post I’m going to tweet about it” were used. Journalists covering Meta and frequently interacting with Stone pointed out that not only did it not sound like him, but it also did not sound like it was written by a native English speaker.

Stone also denied sending the email and said again The cable appeared to rely on forged documents. Meta also published its own rebuttal on October 12. According to the company, the screenshots are fake. The @cringearchivist posts in question were removed by the company’s automated systems, not by a human, let alone an Indian government official. “We hope so The cable is the victim of this scam, not the perpetrator,” the company wrote.

Once again, The cable replied that it would not yield. On October 15, it published another story titled, “Meta said malicious internal email was ‘fake’, URL ‘not in use’, here’s proof they’re wrong.” The lengthy post contained several technical ones Explanations of how Stone’s alleged emails were analyzed and verified. It also cited emails from independent security researchers claiming to support its analysis. And, crucially, it included a screen capture from Meta’s Workplace software that allegedly showed evidence of the takedown requests.

But again, the wires supposed evidence only raises new questions about its sources. On October 16, Meta spoke up again. This time, the company said an internal investigation found that the alleged Workplace video was created from a Workplace account created on October 13 using a free trial of the software.

“At this time we can confirm that the video was shared by The cable which purports to show an internal Instagram system (and which Wire claims is proof that their false accusations are true) actually depicts an externally created Meta Workplace account intentionally named and Instagram’s trademark was set up to deceive people,” the company wrote. “It’s not an internal account. Based on when this account was created on October 13, it appears to have been set up specifically to create evidence to support The Wire’s inaccurate reporting.”

And again, The cable said it stood by its reporting. In an Oct. 17 statement, the publication essentially said it would no longer engage in meta on the subject. The publication accused the company of trying to “goad them” into disclosing their sources. “We are not ready to continue playing this game,” it said.

In the meantime, the alleged proof has been provided The cable kept falling apart. And one of the security researchers who The cable said he secured her verification, he said never sent the messages it cites in its reporting.

On Oct. 18, the publication reversed course, saying it would review its coverage and withhold the stories while it investigated. “This includes a review of all documents, source materials and sources used for our stories on Meta,” The cable wrote in a statement. “As part of this process, based on approval from our sources, we are also exploring the possibility of sharing original files with trusted and reputable domain experts.”

What now?

At this point, there are more questions than answers about how and why the wires The reporting went so wrong. It’s clear that there are serious problems with the “evidence” it relies on, although it’s not clear if it lied intentionally or if it was misled as part of a larger scheme. The publication has said multiple times that it relies on two separate sources, suggesting the whole thing is more complex than one bad source.

More information is expected to be released in the coming days and weeks The cable and others are now taking a closer look at how the story got so out of hand. But there’s a reason the stakes seem so high on this particular incident. India ranks 150th out of 180 for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. And The cablea nonprofit publication, is one of a dwindling number of independent newsrooms in the country.

It’s also worth noting that some elements of this saga point to real and serious issues regarding Meta’s policies and how they affect billions of users. For one thing, the whole situation started with something many people have experienced: a content moderation decision gone awry due to a bug in the company’s automated systems. In the midst of all the back and forth, Instagram ended reinstate the original story post started by @cringearchivist the wires Detection.

There’s also the fact that Meta has been far from open about its cross-check rules for celebrities, politicians, and other VIPs. Many of the details we now know about the program only came to light thanks to a company whistleblower and other investigative reports on the company. The company’s oversight board, which has been preparing an opinion on the program for almost a year, even accused the company of misleading it about the program.

And while there remains no evidence that a cross-check would allow a corporate outsider to remove content, journalists and activists have long questioned whether Meta is giving India’s BJP too much latitude in other policy decisions.

Putting all this together makes it clear why a release pleases The cable could be invested in a story like this in the first place. “Our recent coverage of Meta began with an incident that reflected the lack of transparency at the social media giant and its various platforms.” The cable wrote in its recent statement. Unfortunately, own reporting has only made things more opaque so far.

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Russell Falcon

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