The Wire and Meta point fingers

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Monday, Jahnavi Sen—deputy editor of The Wire, an independent news outlet in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social-media manager for India’s ruling political party, was able to have any post removed from Instagram, regardless of the content, by flagging them through the service’s reporting system. An internal report The Wire saw a copy of “makes clear that the reported post was taken down immediately without any of the company’s moderators looking at it,” the site wrote. Any post flagged by Malviya was treated the same way, according to The Wire: “an immediate removal from the platform, no questions asked.” A source at Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, told The Wire that Malviya reported more than 700 posts in September, and all were removed.

According to The Wire, these takedowns were allowed because Malviya is part of a Meta program called X Check or Cross Check, whose existence was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in September of 2021, as part of the paper’s reporting on a trove of documents released by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook security staffer turned whistleblower. Under the Cross Check program, “some users are ‘whitelisted’—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come,” the Journal reported (the ability to remove content from Facebook or Instagram is not mentioned).

The Wire‘s story included a copy of the internal Instagram report, which it said confirmed that Malviya was able to have posts taken down because he was a member of the program, including timestamps that allegedly corresponded to when the posts were removed that said “Review not required. Reason: Reporting user has XCheck privileges.” In a response to The Wire, Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said the Cross Check program “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts.” He added that all of the posts mentioned by The Wire “were surfaced for review by automated systems,” and suggested that the document referred to in its story “appears to be fabricated.” Guy Rosen, chief information security officer for Meta, went into more detail in a Twitter thread.

In a follow-up story on Tuesday, Sen and Siddharth Varadarajan, a co-founder of The Wire, published a screenshot of what they said was an internal email from Stone, which The Wire said was provided by a source at Meta. The email demands to know “how the hell” the internal document about the Instagram takedowns got leaked, and asks for an activity report on the document. The email also asks that a staff member contact Sen and get more information about the document and how it was leaked; according to The Wire‘s report, Sen got calls and WhatsApp messages from a member of Meta’s communications team in India within thirty minutes of the email allegedly being sent.

A number of journalists and security experts expressed skepticism of The Wire‘s reports, including Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Facebook. “The Wire just destroyed their credibility,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that he suspects the site may have been taken in by a misinformation operation designed to make them look untrustworthy. Stamos also posted a “free tip for journalists: if somebody leaks a discoverable corporate email from an FB comms person with a decade working in political campaigns reading ‘How did we get caught doing the bad thing! Oh no, we are guilty and it is bad!’ then you are probably getting played.”

Shoshana Wodinsky, a reporter with CBS Marketwatch, said that a number of things about the Wire reports seemed fishy, including the fact that the internal address the Instagram document allegedly came from “isn’t a URL that exists,” and that the email address Stone used is also incorrect, since it comes from an address ending in @fb and he would probably be using one ending in @meta. Ben Collins, a senior reporter at NBC News, said in his view the documents “don’t pass the smell test,” and Paris Martineau, a reporter with The Information, said that the screenshot of the email that allegedly came from Stone “looks incredibly fake (mismatched sender formatting, improperly aligned like button, and syntax that is rare from an english speaker).”

Sophie Zhang, another Facebook whistleblower who leaked documents about the company’s failure to crack down on abuse of its systems, said she was “inclined to believe” Meta’s argument that the documents in The Wire‘s stories were fabricated. Zhang said the company didn’t make the same argument about her documents, they just refused to comment. She also said there were “a number of discrepancies in the reporting/docs” that seemed suspicious. Varadarajan responded on Twitter that any allegations that The Wire had been “played by unknown elements out to discredit us… is ridiculous. Our stories came from multiple Meta sources—whom we know, have met & verified.” He promised to provide even more evidence in a new story on Thursday.

Here’s more on Meta:

Painful: Meta promoted its vision of the metaverse during its annual Connect conference on Tuesday, but not everyone was impressed. Darrell Etherington, a technology reporter with TechCrunch, wrote that “it’s painful how hellbent Mark Zuckerberg is on convincing us that VR is a thing.” Etherington wrote that the company “announced a lot of stuff, but what it communicated more effectively than anything else was just how incredibly thirsty—one might even say desperate—Mark Zuckerberg is for his metaverse bet to pay off.” Parmy Olson wrote for Bloomberg that Meta’s “pivot to the metaverse may well go down as one of the greatest corporate strategic errors of our time.”

Dog food: Meta’s virtual social network, Horizon Worlds, is suffering from so many quality issues that even the team building it isn’t using it very much, according to internal memos obtained by The Verge. In a memo to employees, Vishal Shah, Meta’s vice president of Metaverse, said: “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly. Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?” In a follow-up memo, Shah said managers would be “held accountable” if they didn’t get their staff to use it at least once a week.

Hijack: Meta warned one million of its users that their account information may have been compromised by third-party apps from Apple or Google’s stores, according to Engadget. “The company’s security researchers say that in the last year they’ve identified more than 400 scammy apps designed to hijack users’ Facebook account credentials,” the site reported. According to the company, the apps are disguised as fun or useful services, like photo editors or horoscope apps, which required users to log in with Facebook but in the process stole the users’ Facebook account information.

Other notable stories:

Alex Jones has been ordered to pay the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims close to a billion dollars in damages for reporting that the shooting was a hoax and the victims were “crisis actors,” Reuters reported. The decision was made by a Connecticut jury on Wednesday after three weeks of testimony. The plaintiffs were relatives of twenty children and six staff members who were gunned down at Sandy Hook in 2012. Jones’ company, InfoWars, filed for bankruptcy protection before the jury award.

If Donald Trump runs again, journalists must cover him differently, writes Margaret Sullivan, former media columnist for the Washington Post, in an excerpt from her book, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life. Reporters and editors, she says, “need to take a hard, critical look at the types of stories that constitute traditional campaign coverage,” which often relies on “live footage of speeches, rallies and debates; on ‘horse race’ articles based on polls or conventional wisdom; and on blowing up small conflicts into major stories.” This kind of coverage, Sullivan writes, “can have the effect of normalizing a candidate who should not be normalized.”

Sui Lee Wee profiled the literary magazine Oway, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Myanmar, for The New York Times. The site is a run by a team of young journalists and writers who use pseudonyms to protect themselves from being targeted by police or government authorities. Myanmar has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work since the military seized power in a coup last year: close to sixty reporters are in prison, according to a Facebook group for detained Myanmar journalists, and more than one hundred and forty journalists have been arrested.

Somali intelligence officers in Somalia arrested Ahmed Mumin, a press-rights advocate and freelance journalist, on Tuesday, reported the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mumin, the cofounder and secretary general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate, participated in a press conference at the syndicate’s office where he and five local press rights groups condemned a recent vaguely worded government directive banning the “dissemination of extremism ideology.” Intelligence officers raided the syndicate’s offices on Monday, and Somali reporters say Mumin was targeted for objecting to the directive.

John Skipper, the former president of ESPN and founder of Meadowlark Media, a content studio, recently announced a new multi-platform series called Sports Explains the World that will be produced by Meadowlark. “We are putting a stake in the ground that we are going to be a storytelling company,” Skipper told The Hollywood Reporter. The series will emulate ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, with thirty documentaries and forty-five podcast episodes that “reveal greater truths about the world and society” through sports-related stories. Sports Explains the World will launch in early 2023, Skipper said.

An NBC interview with John Fetterman, a candidate for senator in Pennsylvania, was criticized by some journalists for being unfair to Fetterman by focusing on physical difficulties he has as a result of suffering a stroke in May, Poynter reported. Fetterman read the interview questions from Dasha Burns off a computer with closed-captioning, and Burns later said she believed Fetterman had difficulty engaging in small talk before the interview. Kara Swisher, who does a podcast for the New York Times, replied on Twitter: “I talked to @JohnFetterman for over an hour without stop or any aides and this is just nonsense.” Rebecca Traister, who writes for New York magazine, said she recently interviewed Fetterman and said that his “comprehension is not at all impaired.”

TikTok takes up to seventy per cent of the proceeds from livestreams made by displaced families in Syrian refugee camps who are asking for donations, a BBC investigation found. Some of the livestreams were bringing in up to $1,000 an hour in donations, but people in the camps received only a tiny fraction of the amount, the broadcaster reported. The BBC also described how “TikTok middlemen” provide families with the phones and equipment to go live. “The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to TikTok accounts,” the BBC reported, adding that “these agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers and encourage users to spend more time on the app.”

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