Facebook and Indian news outlet The Wire became embroiled in a dispute over an Instagram post that was inadvertently removed from the platform. Here is what transpired.
After retracting its piece on Meta, The Wire published an addendum indicating that a staff member “deceived” it. Previously, the story unfolded as follows.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is at the heart of a dispute in India, where a local media asserts that the firm removed an Instagram post on behalf of an Indian politician. Meta rebutted these charges and accused the source of fabricating evidence.
The Wire decided to stop access to its stories on October 18th and undertake a “internal assessment” of the papers it used as evidence after Meta and numerous online experts discovered anomalies in its reporting. Later, on October 23, it reversed its story due to “some irregularities” in its findings.
It is an exceptionally complicated narrative, involving the complexities of Indian politics, email forensics, and Meta’s controversial relationship with the media. The last few weeks of mayhem have been condensed into a short summary of what has transpired and why it is significant.
What is happening here?
The Wire, an independent Indian news outlet, released an article on October 6 detailing how Instagram erroneously removed a satirical photograph depicting a guy praising Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The account owner, @cringearchivist, claims Instagram erased the post because it violated its “sexual activity and nudity” policy, despite the fact that it did not involve sexual activity or nudity.
According to The Wire, contrary to popular belief, the message was not reported owing to an error in an automated system. An internal source at Meta allegedly told The Wire that the company removed the post at the request of Amit Malviya, the head of the information technology cell at India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP). However, gaps in The Wire’s reporting cast doubt on the veracity of these allegations.
Since then, Meta has refuted The Wire’s allegation. It has attempted to discredit the “manufactured proof” presented by The Wire’s source, claiming that it hopes The Wire “is the victim of this scam, not the perpetrator.” After vehemently defending its statements, The Wire has taken into account the responses from Meta and internet users and declared that it will “examine its reporting on Meta.” Due to many contradictions in the papers it initially supplied as evidence, which we will discuss below, the news organization ultimately decided to recant its whole article.
What does The Wire indicate occurred?
The Wire essentially stated that Malviya had the post removed by utilizing the special capabilities granted to high-profile users. Malviya’s Instagram handle, @amitmalviya, is listed as the user who reported @cringearchivist’s post, according to screenshots of documents reportedly used by Instagram as part of its internal review procedure. In addition, the document indicated that Malviya “had XCheck rights” and that a second review of the content was “not required.”
The XCheck program is undeniably real: The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Meta employs an XCheck, or cross-check, system that allows high-profile users to bypass Facebook and Instagram’s regular moderation processes. The Wire’s research, however, suggested that this was used for partisan political purposes in India, allowing Malviya to “publish as he pleases without the platform’s regulations applying to him.”
What does Meta say regarding The Wire’s assertions?
Meta replied to the allegations by stating that its cross-check mechanism “does not offer enrolled accounts the ability to have content automatically deleted from our site.” It adds that the policy was developed to “avoid potential over-enforcement errors and to double-check circumstances in which a decision may require additional comprehension.”
Additionally, the corporation contested the internal information provided by The Wire’s source. Guy Rosen, chief information officer at Meta, states that the instagram.workplace.com URL displayed in the screenshots does not exist. Rosen adds on Twitter, “It appears to be a fake.” “The URL listed on that’report’ is not active. The naming convention is not one we employ. This report does not exist.”
In order to demonstrate the credibility of its source, The Wire published a video purporting to show Instagram’s internal workspace. The clip depicted a person reading through a list of claimed “post-incident reports involving VIPS” on Instagram’s backend, which The Wire reported employees can only access via the company’s internal subdomain, instagram.workplace.com. Pranesh Prakash, a legal and policy analyst, noticed an incident where the cursor jumps unnaturally during the video, despite the news outlet’s claim that “it determined that the video had not been altered.”
Meta said it has proof that a user created an external Meta Workplace account and altered the page’s branding to make it appear to be an Instagram page. A few days after The Wire’s original claims, the account was established on October 13.
Meta writes, “based on the timing of this account’s establishment on October 13, it appears to have been created intentionally to fabricate evidence to back the Wire’s erroneous reporting.” “We have locked the account because it is being used to perpetuate fraud and mislead journalists in violation of our terms of service.”
What about the other evidence in The Wire?
The Wire also claimed to have obtained an email from Andy Stone, the director of policy communications at Meta. In the email, Stone purportedly expresses irritation over the leak of the previously mentioned internal paper and requests that the journalists responsible for the article be placed on a “watchlist.” The Wire validated the email’s DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) signature using a program called dkimpy.
I know – and whoever is now going to increasing lengths to fabricate this story knows – this is completely false. I never sent, wrote, or even thought what's expressed in that supposed email, as it's been clear from the outset that @thewire_in's stories are based on fabrications.
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 15, 2022
In this scenario, the fb.com domain of Meta’s Facebook account is the domain from which an email is reported to have originated. The Wire published a video depicting the verification procedure, which it claims was approved by two independent security experts, and concluded that the email is authentic.
In response, Meta stated that the email is “fake” and that a “watchlist” does not exist. Stone denies the existence of the email via a Twitter message. Stone writes: “This is entirely incorrect.” “I never sent, wrote, or even considered the contents of that alleged email, as it has been evident from the start that @thewire in’s stories are fabricated.”
Users on the Internet have also debunked The Wire’s claims. In a conversation on Twitter, cybersecurity expert and author Arnab Ray discovered that the DKIM analysis video uploaded by The Wire does not prove that Stone sent the email.
DKIM is based on a domain public key, not an individuals. It’s not like PGP. All DKIM could prove was that an email came from an org, not a person within the organization. So anyone inside an org can spoof someone else in org, it provides zero protection for insider spoofing
— Arnab Ray (@greatbong) October 15, 2022
As Ray said, “DKIM is based on a domain public key,” which means it cannot verify that it originated from a single individual; it only demonstrates that it originated from the domain associated with a certain corporation, such as fb.com. This allows anyone with access to the organization’s email to forge Stone’s email address, making it appear as though the email originated from Stone when it did not.
Prakash also demonstrates how simple it is to construct a movie that gives the impression that he is use a DKIM tool by utilizing a two-line shell script named “dkimverify.” Prakash modified the “tool” so that it always returns “signature ok” regardless of the input, indicating that the DKIM is confirmed. The Wire has recently disclosed that, during a review of its story, its investigators were unable to confirm the authenticity of Stone’s purported email.
The emails between The Wire and alleged security experts who validated the publication’s DKIM authentication procedure are likewise suspect. Prakash notes that the dates on the emails are inconsistent between the current and archived versions of the article, with the current version stating the year as 2022 and the stored version as 2021.
There are also indications that the emails may have been entirely manufactured. Kanishk Karan, a policy manager for online platforms, discovered that The Wire referred to him as a “independent security expert” at the end of one of the unredacted emails, along with a spoofed email address that appears to be his. Karan claims that while The Wire reporter Devesh Kumar did contact him for DKIM verification, he never performed the service and instead sent Kumar to other specialists. In its most recent update, The Wire acknowledged that the second security expert mentioned in the article, Ujjwal Kumar, “denied sending such an email” to approve the DKIM process.
So… what does it all amount to?
Regardless of what transpired, it does not look good for The Wire. In one way or another, there is accumulating evidence that their initial reports were incomplete. Some critics claim that The Wire completely faked the evidence and invented a false tale to defame Meta. Some believe that someone affiliated with the BJP intentionally leaked the material to undermine the journal.
Others believe that The Wire was the subject of an elaborate hoax, with someone close to Meta fabricating bogus proof and fooling journalists into believing it’s real. The Wire notes, “We are still evaluating the entire situation, including the likelihood that it was intended to intentionally mislead or defraud The Wire.”
As more evidence becomes available, however, things are becoming apparent. A recent Platformer article indicated that Kumar is the only person who had contact with The Wire’s alleged “source,” and only last week, Kumar claimed that his accounts had been hacked. In addition to retracting Kumar’s reporting on Meta, The Wire has suspended access to his story on Tek Fog, an app allegedly utilized by the BJP to infiltrate, manipulate, and disseminate false material across many social media platforms. The Wire notes that the report has been “taken from public view awaiting the outcome of an internal review by The Wire” because one of its authors was a member of the technical team responsible for our now-retracted coverage of Meta.
The Wire explains, “In light of doubts and concerns from experts about some of this material and the verification processes we employed — including messages to us by two experts denying making assessments of that process directly and indirectly attributed to them in our third story — we are conducting an internal review of the available materials.” “This will involve an examination of all papers, source material, and sources utilized for our Meta articles. As part of this process, and with the cooperation of our sources, we are also examining the possibility of sharing actual files with reputable and trusted domain experts.”
But regardless of whence this misunderstanding and uncertainty originated, the purpose of reporting is to clarify such matters, which was manifestly not done here.
Why is all of this significant?
The relationship between Meta’s leadership and the Indian government has been tumultuous, and this weird exchange will only make matters worse. Last year, when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward, internal records revealed that Meta (formerly Facebook) generally neglected India-related issues. The New York Times reports that in 2019, Meta allocated 87 percent of its expenditure for identifying misinformation on the platform to the United States and 13 percent to the rest of the world. This lack of control resulted in a surge of hate speech and false information on Facebook around the nation.
There are also concerns regarding Meta’s relationship with the ruling BJP party in India. In 2020, the firm was accused of neglecting to remove anti-Muslim tweets published by BJP-affiliated Indian politician T. Raja Singh. In addition, according to internal papers obtained by The Guardian in 2017, Facebook allegedly enabled phony accounts endorsing a BJP leader to remain on the platform. According to a recent revelation by Al Jazeera, Meta offers discounted rates for advertisements purchased by pro-Hindu politicians.
Update (23 October, 14:28 EDT): Updated to include The Wire’s retraction of its report.
Update, 19 October, 12:05 EDT: The Wire has withdrawn its reports and is currently undertaking an internal assessment.
Correction 17 October, 18:08 EDT: Previously, it was said that Pranesh Prakash is a legal and policy analyst with the Centre for Internet and Society. This is false, as Prakash no longer holds this post. It was also previously said that Prakash demonstrates how simple it is to fabricate a false result using a DKIM tool such as dkimpy, but in fact he demonstrates how to create a movie that makes it appear as though he’s using a DKIM tool such as dkimverify. We regret the mistake.
18 October, 11:08 AM ET Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Amit Malviya is the head of the BJP, while in fact he is the head of the BJP’s IT cell. We regret the mistake.