The strange saga of Meta, The Wire and their fight for Indian content moderation

When a journalist from Thread, an independent Indian publication, ran a story on Oct. 6 about a meme page’s claim that its Instagram post had been wrongfully deleted, it hardly seemed like the kind of story that would get much attention. The Instagram account, @cringearchivist, was a private account with less than 1,000 followers. The fact that their post, a satirical image of an Indian government official, was taken down for violating the app’s rules regarding sexual activity – despite there being no such thing – was odd, but not the kind of thing that would attract international attention.

But in an increasingly bizarre turn of events, the nonprofit newsroom began publishing articles with more explosive claims about what it says led to @cringearchivist’s post being deleted. 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 likely the result of some kind of elaborate hoax.

What happened?

After the initial Instagram takedown story, Thread then began to take a closer look at what happened. Having received no response from Meta, reporters began asking questions of inside company sources. According to what a journalist from Thread Told NewsLaundry, Sources within Meta told them that the post was deleted not by Instagram moderators, but at the request of Amit Malviya, an official of India’s ruling BJP party, who oversees its IT cell. .

Thread then posted a follow-up to his original story on October 10, with the caption “Exclusive: If BJP’s Amit Malviya flags your post, Instagram will delete it – no questions asked.” The story alleged that Malviya had the power to delete Instagram posts thanks to Meta’s controversial cross-verification program, which has been credited with protecting celebrities and high-profile politicians from company rules.

It was an explosive allegation. While cross-checking has come under intense scrutiny, no previous reports have indicated that these privileges could extend to the ability of people outside the company to influence content takedowns.

Meta immediately refuted the story. Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said the cross-check had “nothing to do with being able to flag posts” and that the original Instagram post was removed due to Instagram’s automated tools. He also said that “the underlying documentation appears to have been fabricated”.

Rather than backing down, however, Thread published a new story the next day, this one containing an email – supposedly sent by Stone – in which the communications manager lambasted staff for allowing the documents to “leak”. But the assumed email only raised more questions about The wire is reports. Most glaringly, the grammar and syntax of the messages was… odd. He used phrases such as “over the past month” and “post I’ll tweet about it”. Journalists who cover Meta and frequently interact with Stone have pointed out that it not only doesn’t sound like it, it doesn’t sound like it was written by an English speaker.

Stone also denied sending the email and again said Thread seemed to rely on false documents. Meta also posted its own rebuttal on October 12. The screenshots, according to the company, were fabricated. The @cringearchivist posts in question were deleted by the company’s automated systems, not a human, let alone an Indian government official. “We hope Thread is the victim of this hoax, not the perpetrator,” the company wrote.

Once again, Thread replied that he was not backing down. On October 15, he published another article, titled “Meta Said Damage Internal Email is ‘Fake’, URL ‘Not in Use’, Here’s Evidence They’re Wrong”. The lengthy post included several technical explanations of how Stone’s alleged emails were analyzed and verified. He also cited emails from independent security researchers that allegedly supported their analysis. And, most importantly, it included a screen recording of Meta’s Workplace software which allegedly showed proof of withdrawal requests.

But, The wire is the alleged evidence only raised new questions about its sources. On October 16, Meta weighed in again. This time, the company said an internal investigation found the alleged Workplace video was created from a Workplace account created with a free trial of the software on October 13.

“At this time, we can confirm that the video shared by Thread which claims to show an internal Instagram system (and which Wire claims is proof that their false claims are true) actually represents an externally created Meta Workplace account that was deliberately created with the Instagram name and brand badge in order to mislead people,” the company wrote. “This is not an internal account. Based on the time this account was created on October 13, it appears to have been created specifically in order to fabricate evidence to support the Wire’s inaccurate reports.

And once again, Thread said he stood by his report. In an October 17 statement, the publication essentially said it would no longer engage Meta on the subject. The publication accused the company of trying to “goad” them into revealing their sources. “We are not ready to continue playing this game,” he said.

Meanwhile, the alleged evidence provided by Thread continued to collapse. And one of the security researchers who Thread said he confirmed their verification said he had never sent the messages he quoted in his report.

On October 18, the publication backtracked, saying it would revise its reporting and remove the stories from public view while it investigates. “This will include a review of all documents, source material and sources used for our stories on Meta,” Thread written in a press release. “Based on the consent of our sources, we are also exploring the possibility of sharing original files with trusted and reputable domain experts as part of this process.”

Now what?

At this point, there are still more questions than answers about how and why The wire is the reports have gone so wrong. It’s clear there are serious issues with the ‘evidence’ he relied on, though it’s unclear whether he intentionally lied or was misled in the framework. of a larger scheme. The publication has repeatedly stated that it relied on two separate sources, suggesting the whole thing is more complex than one bad source.

More information is likely to come out in the days and weeks to come, as Thread and others are now taking a closer look at how the story got so out of control. But there’s a reason the stakes for this particular incident seem so high. India ranks 150th out of 180 in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. And Threada non-profit publication, is one of a dwindling number of independent newsrooms in the country.

It’s also worth pointing out that some elements of this saga highlight real and serious issues with Meta’s policies and their impact on its billions of users. For one thing, the whole situation started with something a lot of people have experienced: a content moderation decision gone wrong due to an error in the company’s automated systems. Amidst all the back and forth, Instagram ended up reintegrate the original post of the @cringearchivist story that started The wire is investigation.

There’s also the fact that Meta has been less than clear about its cross-verification rules for celebrities, politicians, and other VIPs. Many of the details we now know about the program have only come to light through a company whistleblower and other company investigative reports. The company’s own supervisory board, which has been working on an advisory opinion for nearly a year on the program, even accused the company of misleading it about the program.

And while there is still no evidence that cross-checking would allow an outsider of the company to initiate content takedowns, journalists and activists have long questioned whether Meta is giving India’s BJP too much leeway. in other political decisions.

Put it all together and you’ll see why a post like Thread could be so 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 of the social media giant and its various platforms,” Thread wrote in his last statement. Unfortunately, his own reporting so far has only made matters more opaque.

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