Facebook and the Indian news site The Wire are in a fight over an Instagram post that was mistakenly deleted from the platform. Here are two points of view.
In India, Meta, the company that owns both Facebook and Instagram, is in the middle of a controversy. A local newspaper there says that the company took down an Instagram post on behalf of an Indian politician. Since then, Meta has pushed back on these claims and accused the outlet of using “fabricated” evidence, which may be true based on Meta’s responses and what users have found online.
It’s hard to keep up with this story because it involves Indian politics, email forensics, and Meta’s tense relationship with the media. So, we’ve made a simple summary of what’s happened in the last week and why it matters.
On October 6, The Wire, an independent Indian news site, published an article about how Instagram removed a satirical image of a man worshiping Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for the wrong reason.The owner of the account, @cringearchivist, says Instagram took down the post because it broke its rules about “sexual activity and nudity,” even though it didn’t show any sexual activity or nakedness.
Many people thought that the post was flagged because of a problem with an automated system, but The Wire said that this wasn’t the case. A source inside Meta told The Wire that the company took down the post at the request of Amit Malviya, the leader of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. However, there are holes in The Wire’s reporting that make it hard to believe these claims.
Meta has since said that The Wire’s story is not true. It says the outlet is spreading false information and has tried to disprove the “fabricated evidence” given by The Wire’s source. It says it hopes The Wire “is the victim of this hoax, not the perpetrator.”
What, according to The Wire, happened?
The Wire said that Malviya got the post taken down by using special rights that high-profile users are given. As proof, they posted screenshots of the paperwork Instagram supposedly uses as part of its internal review process. These screenshots show that Malviya’s Instagram handle, @amitmalviya, is listed as the user who reported @cringearchivist’s post. The Wire also says that Malviya “has XCheck privileges” and that a second look at the content that was reported is “not required.”
The XCheck program is real. Last year, a report from The Wall Street Journal said that Meta uses a system called XCheck, or cross-check, that lets high-profile users avoid Facebook and Instagram’s normal moderation processes. But reports from The Wire seemed to show that this was being used for partisan political purposes in India, letting Malviya “post whatever he wants without having to follow the rules of the platform.”
How does Meta respond to what The Wire says?
Meta responded to the claims by saying that its cross-check program “does not give enrolled accounts the power to automatically have content removed from our platform.” It also says that the policy was made to “prevent possible mistakes in over-enforcement and to double-check cases where a decision might need more understanding.”
The company also didn’t agree with the internal report that The Wire’s source gave them. Guy Rosen, who is in charge of information technology at Meta, says that the instagram.workplace.com URL shown in the screenshots doesn’t exist. Rosen says on Twitter that it seems to be made up. That “report” has a URL that doesn’t work. We don’t use this way of giving names. There is no report like that.
The Wire put up a video showing what it says is a part of Instagram’s internal workspace to show that its source was reliable. The clip shows a person looking through Instagram’s backend’s “post-incident reports involving VIPS,” which The Wire says workers may only access through instagram.workplace.com. The news outlet says that it checked to make sure that the video hadn’t been changed, but Pranesh Prakash, a legal and policy analyst at the Centre for Internet and Society, says that the cursor jumps around in the video in a way that doesn’t make sense.
Meta says it has proof that a user set up an external Meta Workplace account and changed the page’s branding to make it look like it was from Instagram. It says the account was made on October 13, which is a few days after the first reports from The Wire.
The Meta says, “Based on the fact that this account was made on October 13, it seems to have been set up specifically to make fake evidence to back up the wire’s false reporting.” “We have locked the account because it goes against our rules and is being used to spread fraud and mislead journalists.”
What about the other proof from The Wire?
The Wire also says it has an email from Andy Stone, who is in charge of policy communications at Meta. In the email, Stone is said to be angry about the leaked internal document and to ask that the journalists who wrote the story be put on a “watchlist.” The Wire even used a tool called dkimpy, which checks the email’s DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) signature to make sure the email was real.
The protocol is supposed to prove that an email really came from where it says it did, which in this case is Meta’s fb.com domain. The Wire posted a video showing the authentication process, which it says was approved by two independent security experts, and came to the conclusion that the email was real.
Meta replied that the email was “fake” and that there is no such thing as a “watchlist.” In a statement on Twitter, Stone also says that there is no email. Stone writes, “This is not true at all.” I never sent, wrote, or even thought about what was in that supposed email. It’s been clear from the start that @thewirein’s stories are made up. ”
The Wire’s claims have also been questioned by people on the Internet. In a thread on Twitter, cybersecurity expert and author Arnab Ray said that the DKIM analysis video posted by The Wire doesn’t actually prove that Stone sent the email.
Ray said, “DKIM is based on a domain public key.” This means that it can’t prove that it came from a specific person; it can only prove that it came from the domain of a specific organization, like fb.com. This means that someone who has access to the organization’s email could fake the organization’s address, making it look like the email came from Stone when it didn’t.
Prakash also shows how easy it is to make a fake result with a DKIM tool like dkimpy. Prakash was able to get a “signature OK” result from the program, which means that the DKIM has been verified. The emails between The Wire and the supposed security experts who checked the outlet’s DKIM authentication process are also suspicious. Prakash points out that the dates on the emails are different in the current and archived versions of the article. In the current version, the year of the email is written as 2022, but in the archived version, it is written as 2021.
So… what does it all mean?
It doesn’t look good for The Wire, no matter what happens. In one way or another, there is more and more proof that their first reports didn’t tell the whole story. Some doubters think that The Wire made up all the evidence and made up a story to make Meta look bad. Others think that The Wire could have been a big hoax, with someone close to Meta making fake evidence and tricking journalists into thinking it’s real. Some people even think that someone from the BJP leaked the story on purpose to make the publication look bad.
But no matter where the confusion comes from, the point of reporting is to find out what’s going on, and that wasn’t done here.
Why does this matter?
The relationship between Meta’s leaders and the Indian government has been rocky, and this strange back-and-forth is only going to make things worse. Frances Haugen blew the whistle on Facebook last year. Internal documents showed that Facebook (then called Meta) mostly ignored problems in India. According to the New York Times, 87 percent of Meta’s budget in 2019 went to the United States to classify false information on the platform, while the remaining 13 percent went to the rest of the world. Because of this, there was a lot of hate speech and false information on Facebook across the country.
There are also problems with Meta’s relationship with the BJP, the party that runs India. In 2020, the company was accused of not removing anti-Muslim posts shared by T. Raja Singh, an Indian lawmaker from the BJP party. And last year, internal documents that The Guardian got showed that Facebook let fake accounts stay on the platform that were linked to promoting a BJP politician. A recent report from Al Jazeera says that politicians from the pro-Hindu party can buy ads on Meta for less money.