Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Last week, The Wire—an independent news outlet based in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social-media manager for India’s ruling BJP party, was able to remove images from Instagram without having to go through the normal moderation channels. As evidence, The Wire published an internal Instagram report that appeared to corroborate its reporting, with timestamps for when the images were removed, and a note that the usual moderation process wasn’t required because they were flagged by Malviya. When Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, denied that this was possible, The Wire published a second story, including a screenshot of what it said was an email from Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta. In the email, Stone seemed upset about the leak of the original report, and asked his staff to put the journalists who published The Wire‘s initial story on a watchlist.
In a response to that story, Guy Rosen, chief information security officer at Meta, wrote that the email from Stone also appeared to have been fabricated. The Wire then published a third story, in which it described the technical method it used to verify the email, and included a video showing the process. The story also had screenshots of emails sent by two unnamed internet security experts, who said they had reviewed a copy of the Stone email and the process The Wire used to verify it, and they were convinced that it was genuine. Some reporters, however, noted that the emails from the experts were dated in 2021, not 2022. Devesh Kumar, the Wire reporter who handled the verification story, said this was a simple mistake due to a glitch in his operating system.
in an interview with Platformer, Casey Newton’s technology newsletter, Jahnavi Sen, deputy editor of The Wire, said someone from the site met with one of the original sources for the report about Instagram, and that this source verified their identity by providing a number of documents, including their work badge and pay slips. Kumar told Platformer that when The Wire approached its original source about the Instagram takedowns, the source send a copy of the internal report within 20 minutes. When The Wire reached out to a different source, they said they didn’t know anything about the Instagram report, but “they had insight into the discussions happening internally. Seven minutes later, the source responded with the email allegedly from Stone.”
Over the weekend, however, Kanish Karan, one of the internet security experts quoted in The Wire‘s story allegedly verifying Stone’s email, said on Twitter that he never conducted any such review of the site’s research, and that the screenshot of his email that was used in The Wire‘s story was a fake (Karan said he was alerted to the story by a reporter for a different news outlet who called him to corroborate the report, after getting his contact information from The Wire). The second expert who allegedly confirmed the veracity of the Stone email, identified as a principal technical evangelist at Microsoft, also denied that he had done any such review for The Wire‘s story.
On Tuesday, the site took down all three of its articles on Meta, and said that in light of the “concerns and doubts” raised about its coverage, it was launching an internal review of “all documents, information, source material, and sources used for these stories.” (All of the links in this newsletter to The Wire‘s stories are to copies that were automatically saved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine). “Our recent coverage of Meta began with an incident that reflected the lack of transparency at the social media giant,” the company wrote. “But The Wire has an even greater responsibility to be transparent. And we intend to discharge that responsibility with full seriousness.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, one of The Wire‘s co-founders, told Platformer’s Zoë Schiffer on Tuesday that Kumar was the only person who had met the site’s original source, but that he and a number of other reporters and editors had “interacted with” the other source, who provided the alleged Stone email, who Varadarajan said was “a longer standing source of ours, going back four or five months.” The site’s note about the internal review of its stories mentioned that one of the sources for those reports had “supplied material that we have been using for a separate and ongoing investigation.”
Here’s more on India and The Wire:
The scheme: In the interview with Platformer, Schiffer asked Varadarajan if he thought Kumar was “in on the scheme” to fabricate evidence, since he was the one in charge of verifying all the documents ahead of publication. “Nothing that I’ve seen would indicate that,” Varadarajan said. “I know people are saying this, but he’s been with us for many years, he’s a tech guy, and frankly … it just seems a little far-fetched.” Varadarajan also admitted that he was “not a technical guy,” and that this was a potential weakness. “Even if we set aside the allegation of malevolence, if one person doesn’t have the chops to handle all the complexities, that also becomes a point of failure,” he told Schiffer.
Conspiracy: One of the frustrating things about the story, Newton wrote, is that “its details seemingly cannot be reconciled without embracing a conspiracy theory: that multiple people conspired to hoax The Wire; that one or more persons within The Wire committed the hoax themselves; or that multiple people within Meta conspired to falsely accuse a publication of fabricating documents.” As Newton points out, all of this is happening in a country whose authoritarian government has worked consistently to reduce press freedoms, and has been accused of using Pegasus surveillance software to track the activities of journalists, including those at The Wire.
A sad place: Nitish Pahwa writes for Slate that to see The Wire caught up in accusations of faking news stories is “a huge blow” to journalism in India. “It’s a sad place for the Wire to end up,” he says. “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.”
Inauthentic: Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist who leaked internal documents about the network last year, said the social network allowed a network of fake accounts to inflate the popularity of a member of India’s ruling BJP party, even after Facebook was alerted to the problem. “The company was preparing to remove the fake accounts but paused when it found evidence that the politician was probably directly involved in the network,” The Guardian reported. Other senior members of the BJP have also escaped Facebook’s normal penalties for hate speech and offensive behavior in the past, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal in 2020.
Other notable stories:
- According to Rolling Stone, FBI agents raided the Arlington, Virginia apartment of James Meek, a national security reporter for ABC News, in April, and his colleagues have not seen or heard from him since. “He resigned very abruptly and hasn’t worked for us for months,” an ABC representative told Rolling Stone. According to the magazine, some believe the raid is the first to be carried out on a journalist by the Biden administration. Meek’s lawyer told Deadline that if the search was related to possession of classified documents, “this would be within the scope of Mr. Meek’s long career as an investigative journalist.”
- Rupert Murdoch has plans to rebuild his media empire, Reuters reports. News Corp. and Fox, which have been separate operating companies since Murdoch split the original News Corp in two in 2013, are reviewing a proposal to recombine the two to form a single company. News Corp. holds Murdoch’s print businesses, and Fox houses TV and entertainment. In other Fox news, the New York Times profiles Suzanne Scott, the company’s CEO, who is a central figure in a $1.6 billion lawsuit launched by Dominion Voting Systems, which accuses Fox executives of airing false information about its machines.
- Researchers from New York University and Vanderbilt University say in a newly published working paper that YouTube tends to push viewers of the site’s videos toward content on the conservative side of the political spectrum. “We found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm does not lead the vast majority of users down extremist rabbit holes,” the study’s authors write, but “it does push users into increasingly narrow ideological ranges of content in what we might call evidence of a (very) mild ideological echo chamber.”
- A report from the Poynter Institute indicates that some independent news outlets are starting to feel the negative impact of inflation. According to the institute’s survey, published on Wednesday, the cost of ink has increased by ten to fifteen percent this year, newsprint costs are up thirty percent or more, and fuel is up fifty percent. Evening Post, the parent company of Charleston’s The Post and Courier, told Poynter they added a surcharge to print subscriptions in order to make up for the increase in gas prices. The Advocate and Times-Picayune in New Orleans said their cybersecurity insurance has also increased, and Minneapolis’s Star Tribune said healthcare costs have climbed.
- The Thompson Reuters Foundation has rescinded an award it gave a Palestinian journalist after she made comments on Facebook where she likened herself to Hitler, The Jewish Chronicle reports. The foundation had given Shatha Hammad, a freelance journalist who has written for Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera, the Kurt Schork Award, along with $7,000 and the chance for her work to be “spotlighted through a multimedia campaign on Reuter’s social media channels.” Hammad reportedly made a number of antisemitic posts on Facebook, and even signed off using the nickname “Hitler.” Middle East Eye said it has also cut ties with Hammad as a result of the posts.
- NPR interviewed slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s niece, Lina Abu Akleh, who has been lobbying for justice for her aunt, who was shot and killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in Palestine in May. Investigative reports concluded Abu Akleh was killed by a member of the Israeli army, which the Israeli government said was an accident. Abu Akleh’s family says the veteran Al Jazeera reporter was deliberately targeted by Israeli forces. Lina told NPR that the US has yet to conduct a full investigation into the killing of her aunt.