Future Tense

Why a Botched Story About Facebook Is a Huge Blow to Indian Journalism

The Facebook logo is seen surrounded by a black circle and symbols like a thumbs-up
The Wire’s jaw-dropping report on Facebook parent Meta was a miss. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

The state of journalism in India, the “world’s largest democracy,” has never been so dire. And recently, it just got much worse—this time not because of the government or its acolytes, but because of a once-dependable news website whose mistakes will have ramifications far outside the subcontinent.

On Oct. 10 the Wire, one of India’s few truly independent publications, put out an explosive report alleging deep ties between the Indian government and employees at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Specifically, the Wire’s reporter claimed that a “well-placed source” tipped her off to unprecedented privileges Meta afforded to Amit Malviya, a longtime supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Malviya officially heads the BJP’s “IT cell”—i.e., its infamous messaging wing. The Wire reported that Malviya was able to decide unilaterally what posts Instagram should take down, thanks to the Meta service XCheck, and that he successfully targeted posts that poked fun at his party.

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If true, this was a massive revelation. And at least on the surface, there was little reason to doubt the finding. Years of reporting from international outlets (including the Wire) have made clear that the Indian government has sought to dictate how foreign media platforms operate within the country: demanding that thousands of posts be taken down, changing rules governing social media, censoring certain hashtags, siccing police on tech workers, and bullying companies. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the then-head of Facebook India explicitly lobbied against applying company hate speech rules to violent posts by Hindu nationalists, without disclosing her own ideological alignment with the Modi administration. Just months ago, Twitter whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko testified to the U.S. Congress that India’s government attempted to infiltrate the company with its own agents—and maybe succeeded in one case. Plus, Amit Malviya is well established as a disinformation peddler and party hatchet man. Viewed in this light, the Wire’s conclusion, while shocking, was not at all improbable.

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But the same day the Wire report went viral, Andy Stone, a Meta communications director, tweeted that XCheck “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts,” that the Instagram posts highlighted by the Wire were “surfaced for review by automated systems” instead of humans—and, most devastatingly, that “the underlying documentation” used in the piece “appears to be fabricated.”

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High-ranking Facebook employees don’t exactly have a history of always being forthright. But when other damning documents have been released, like the Facebook Papers, Meta hasn’t denied their existence. For the megacorporation to throw suspicion on an outlet with which it had never so publicly feuded, one that had published all sorts of other damning reports on the company without such pushback—this was completely new, and it quickly garnered attention among the tech press in India and across the world.

The Wire stuck by its story, despite Stone’s tweets. It even published a follow-up the next day, this time claiming to have seen an internal email from Stone that asked “how the hell” one of the cited documents “got leaked” and called for two Wire reporters to be placed “on watchlist.” Meta’s chief information security officer, Guy Rosen, then took to Twitter himself to call both Wire pieces “outlandish and riddled with falsities,” labeling the leaked Stone email “a fake” and denying the existence of an internal watchlist for journalists.

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This led to another twist, in which many of the outside parties paying attention to these back-and-forths found themselves in an unexpected place: on Meta’s side. MarketWatch’s Shoshana Wodinsky pointed out that some of the URLs and email addresses seen in the Wire’s sourcing screenshots do not exist, and referred back to her past reporting on the Facebook Papers to contradict the Wire’s descriptions of XCheck. BuzzFeed News’ Pranav Dixit asked why Wire journalists didn’t appear to do the basic task of asking Meta for comment before running its first story. Even Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee whose whistleblowing helped reveal how her onetime employer coddles the BJP, wrote that she was “90-95% sure” the documents cited by the Wire were “fake.”

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By Oct. 12, Meta had published a blog post titled “What the Wire Reports Got Wrong,” doubling down on Stone’s and Rosen’s claims that the website “rel[ied] on what we believe to be fabricated evidence.” The Wire continued to defy Meta, with founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan tweeting that “we have other corroborative material too—currently under process. This ain’t over yet.” It was a bold claim, and it led to another bold Wire piece, published on Oct. 15, that proffered “a point-by-point response to Meta’s statement questioning The Wire’s story.” It included an embedded video that supposedly contained more visual evidence of a source browsing Meta’s internal Workplace network, accessing a disputed URL that, according to the Wire, is only “accessible to a restricted group of staff members.”

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By this point, opinions about the Wire-Meta scrap were sharply divided. Enough doubt had been cast by people not affiliated with Meta—many of them Meta critics—to invite broader scrutiny over the initial reporting. The site’s staffers continued to share the pieces and vouch for their colleagues, while Varadarajan fought off Meta’s counterclaims. Diligent journalists who’d expressed their doubts were attacked online by the Wire’s defenders, while BJP supporters salivated at the chance to destroy the credibility of a place they perceive as peddling “fake news.” Meta doubters pointed to the fact that Stone had retweeted supportive messages from unapologetic Hindu nationalists. The Stanford Internet Observatory’s Alex Stamos, who previously served as Facebook’s chief security officer, penned his own thread about the Wire’s “point-by-point response,” noting still more discrepancies that didn’t clarify anything about the outlet’s sourcing. Zhang tweeted that she continued to “believe that the documents are forgeries.”

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To be clear, informed analysts of the saga did not tend to believe the Wire acted maliciously in order to defame Meta. Rather, they said this was probably the result of an elaborate scheme planned by someone with a vendetta against the Wire. Or, as Stamos put it, “an extremely successful op against opposition journalism.”

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That conclusion was supported by a Sunday update Meta added to its blog post, “confirm[ing] that the video shared by the Wire … in fact depicts an externally-created Meta Workplace account that was deliberately set up with Instagram’s name and brand insignia in order to deceive people.” The newsroom post found that the “internal” Meta Workplace account cited by the Wire had been “created on October 13—after the Wire’s news reports were initially published,” and it was not traceable to a Meta worker.

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The Wire went all-in for one last stand Monday morning, writing in a special statement that “We reiterate the faith we have in our sources,” dismissing any possibility of a “hoax.” Yet it didn’t take long for the outlet to finally back off: On Tuesday morning, it released another statement declaring that the newsroom “intends to review its reporting on Meta,” with the possibility of sharing sources’ original files. As of now, the Wire has also taken down the relevant reports from the site.

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There were several other points of contention along the way, including allegations the Wire had made undisclosed updates to its accusations against Meta, claimed to work with sources it had not worked with, and said its reporters were getting hacked. The satirical social media account whose Instagram posts had been taken down, thus sparking the Wire’s original reporting, tweeted Tuesday that one of the offending illustrations was live again on Instagram. Yet the public mess had made its mark. Without admitting it, the Wire seemed to all but confirm suspicions that the leaks on which it based its reporting had been faked, that its source with Meta was likely not up to snuff, that its journalism was not as accurate as advertised, and that, most tragically, it had screwed up big time.

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It’s a sad place for the Wire to end up. 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. Along with outlets like the Caravan, Scroll, Alt News, the Print, and Cobrapost, the Wire offered detailed, incisive reporting on the realities of modern-day Indian life and politics. It’s made a huge impact, with several articles uncovering the rot of Modi’s regime, and it’s even expanded its operations, publishing a separate Substack of daily news roundups. As a nonprofit without any corporate backing, the Wire bills itself as “India’s foremost independent news-site” and relies in large part on donations from readers and “concerned citizens.” (The Wire is also a publishing partner with Slate’s Future Tense; I have a couple reprinted bylines there as a result.) Much like the aforementioned outlets, the Wire has been targeted by Modi and the BJP’s vast network. A recent profile of the website from the Committee to Protect Journalists deemed it “India’s hardest-hit newsroom,” citing the surveillance of Wire reporters, the extra security precautions they’ve taken, and the fear they have for their safety, as well as their families’.

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Like other backsliding democracies around the world, India is in the midst of a dire journalism crisis—in its case, fueled in large part and supported by its Hindu nationalist government. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, formerly trustworthy print and digital outlets have been either co-opted by executives friendly with the prime minister or shut down altogether. TV news has become a series of Fox News–like panels accompanied by low-quality fire animations. Truth-seeking reporters have been hacked, surveilled, harassed, jailed, barred from the country, even murdered. Poor economic conditions for the industry have left numerous writers and anchors out of work, and mastheads are heavily skewed in favor of society’s most privileged. Social media and encrypted messaging apps are soaked with trans-Atlantic disinformation and spam; the Modi administration has explicitly demanded more control over Big Tech sites while booting out alternate media like TikTok. The number of credible journalistic platforms Indians can turn to for accurate and informed information has whittled drastically, and the still-surviving institutions struggle to carry on.

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Every publication makes mistakes, some far more serious than others. But the Wire-Meta saga appears to display sheer irresponsibility on the former’s part—both in reporting the original story and in doubling down on it. It’s embarrassing to admit you’ve perhaps been taken for a ride; if this were a sting, it could be evidence savvy Indian right-wingers are adopting tactics not unlike those employed by some American conservatives, who’ve attempted to hoodwink major newspapers so as to decimate their credibility. (In this case, Indian tricksters would have pulled off what a site like the Gateway Pundit could not.) What’s more, Meta and its spokespeople tell so, so many lies about their work, and they’ve done such awful damage to India in particular, that it’s crushing to see the Wire forced into ceding the high ground here.

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The pressure is high in the subcontinent, and the Wire’s most intrepid writers doubtlessly face daily threats of the kind few American journalists are familiar with. Yet that also makes their rectitude all the more imperative. The entire world is increasingly concerned about the current state of India. Its rankings in both the World Press Freedom Index and Freedom of the World report have plunged to their lowest levels ever. The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote in July that Twitter’s lawsuit against India’s government, filed over the latter’s relentless censorship requests, “could mark a pivotal moment for internet speech around the world.” Misinformation from BJP foot soldiers at all levels make it so sites like the Wire are the only way anyone outside India can get an accurate view of one of the world’s most important countries.

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But the publication will not escape this story or recover from the fallout anytime soon. Already, commentators have called for reevaluations of the Wire’s past tech reporting (which I’ve often cited in my own writing). Online trolls who’ve often harassed reporters and undermined their work are filled with glee. It’s all a deep, injurious blow.

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The Wire has done important, noble work under duress, and its best writing remains a brilliant exemplar of what Indian journalism can do best. But going forward, it’ll be so much harder to do this type of journalism. No doubt, reporters will face more persecution and doubts especially when it comes to reporting on Meta—whose largest market is India. This should be a pensive moment for anyone who cares about the feeble state of the country’s democracy and its weakened pillars of the fourth estate, because it’s difficult to say where Indian journalism goes from here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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