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Wire-Meta Saga Ends (for Now): Here Are the Key Takeaways & Unanswered Questions

The Wire's reports may have come and gone, but hard questions about the unprecedented and messy affair remain.

Published
Tech News
6 min read
Wire-Meta Saga Ends (for Now): Here Are the Key Takeaways & Unanswered Questions
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The story of an influential BJP figure having exclusive privileges in regards to which Instagram posts are taken down has, over the last ten days, embroiled an Indian news organisation and a tech giant in a controversy that’s one for the books (or OTT).

In an exclusive report on 10 October, The Wire alleged that Amit Malviya, the head of the ruling party’s IT Cell, had reported certain posts by a satirical Instagram account and they were all taken down solely at his discretion. Why? Because that was one of the perks of being classified as an XCheck user like Malviya, as per the report.

To support its claims, The Wire produced screenshots of a purported internal report that had been furnished by a source which The Wire claimed it had within Meta. Two days later, Meta denied the allegations in a statement on its official website.

In the days that followed, The Wire initially doubled down on their reports, and published two subsequent reports backing up their first two. But then, on 18 October, in a reversal, the news outlet suspended all four of its reports on the matter and announced that it would be proceeding with an internal review. On 23 October, The Wire retracted these reports, citing discrepancies in the material used.

While the reports may be out of sight, the unprecedented and messy affair is hardly out of mind. What are the alleged discrepancies? Who’s responsible for the alleged fabrications? What is up with Meta’s content moderation? Will anyone come clean? Here’s what we know for sure and all that remains to be clarified.

Wire-Meta Saga Ends (for Now): Here Are the Key Takeaways & Unanswered Questions

  1. 1. WHAT WE KNOW #1: Posts Were Taken Down

    A total of seven Instagram stories and posts that were put up by the Instagram account @cringearchivist were reportedly taken down over a span of seven months. The most recent of the removed posts, dated 19 September, focused on a man worshipping the idol of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

    Expand
  2. 2. WHAT WE KNOW #2: This Keeps Happening

    It’s no secret that Meta’s AI-driven content moderation system often gets things wrong. Several users consistently wonder why certain posts are swiftly taken down by the platform for reasons that don’t add up. To make matters worse, Meta isn’t fully upfront on how it uses its automated tools.

    While data pertaining to Meta's automated or "proactive" moderation is disclosed in periodic compliance reports, it does not provide details on how much of the content that was flagged proactively did not, in fact, violate the platform's Community Guidelines upon further review.

    Expand
  3. 3. WHAT WE KNOW #3: XCheck Is a Thing

    Meta hasn’t disputed that the XCheck or cross-check programme exists. “Our cross-check system was built to prevent potential over-enforcement mistakes and to double-check cases where a decision could require more understanding or there could be a higher risk for a mistake,” the company said in its statement.

    Notably, as per Meta, XCheck is not limited to only celebrities or politicians and could also include accounts of prominent journalists as well as human rights organisations.

    What came into question, after The Wire's reports, was the scope of privileges granted under XCheck and whether it allows whitelisted users to not just escape content moderation but also, at times, determine it. Meta firmly said no in this regard.
    Expand
  4. 4. WHAT WE KNOW #4: XCheck Has Been Abused

    The Wall Street Journal’s 2021 investigation, that was also based on leaked internal files, had revealed that XCheck users enjoyed blanket exemptions from the platforms’ content moderation rules.

    Expand
  5. 5. WHAT WE KNOW #5: FB Oversight Board Had Its Doubts

    A month after the XCheck investigation by WSJ broke, the Facebook Oversight Board took the company to task and demanded greater transparency, specifically on XCheck. “In the Board’s view, the team within Facebook tasked with providing information has not been fully forthcoming on cross-check. On some occasions, Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the Board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete,” it said.

    Expand
  6. 6. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #1: Legit Grounds for Reported Takedowns

    Two Instagram posts, including the story featuring Yogi Adityanath, were reportedly taken down for violating the platform's guidelines on content related to nudity and sexual activity. But the clip shows a man performing aarti of an idol of Yogi Adityanath.

    A post/story can be taken down on these grounds, as per Instagram's guidelines, if it includes "photos, videos and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples."

    However, in the Instagram story related to Yogi Adityanath, there was neither any visible nudity nor anything showing explicit or implied sexual intercourse.

    On 18 October, Instagram user @cringearchivist claimed that the story related to Yogi Adityanath was quietly reinstated. This was on the same day that The Wire suspended its reports.

    Expand
  7. 7. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #2: meta.com or fb.com

    Are both meta.com and fb.com operational? Calling Meta spokesperson Andy Stone’s email in The Wire’s 11 October report "a fake," Meta’s chief information security officer (CISO) Guy Rosen tweeted, “The supposed email address from which it was sent isn’t even Stone’s current email address, and the "to" address isn't one we use here either.”

    However, an Intercept journalist named Sam Biddle said that he had received an email from Stone on 31 August with ‘fb.com’ as the email domain name. Former Facebook CISO Alex Stamos said, “Clearly, the company's O365/ProofPoint instance is setup to receive emails for either domain and various employees are sending from different domains.”

    Expand
  8. 8. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #3: The Tip-Off Method

    Twitter user @cringearchivist said that the Instagram account @cringearchivist had gone private in April. The Twitter account posted screenshots purportedly showing the Instagram account as having been set to 'private' 24 weeks ago or “since the last week of April.”

    The admin(s) of the Twitter account, who claim that they also run the Instagram account with the same username, said that Amit Malviya’s official handle did not follow the Instagram account @cringearchivist.

    If the Instagram account @cringearchivist was a private account since the last week of April and if Amit Malviya’s official account wasn’t one of its followers, could Amit Malviya possibly have reported the post? Was it brought to his attention by one of @cringearchivist's followers?

    The Wire's reports did not address this and therefore, this is something that is still an unknown.

    Generally, one of the ways in which a user in India can report an Instagram post/story of a private account, even if they do not follow the said account, is by submitting a complaint to Meta's India Grievance Officer through an online contact form or sending it to the platforms' common physical mail address.

    Expand
  9. 9. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #4: Meta's Usage of AI Tools

    Given the immediacy with which @cringearchivist’s posts were reviewed and removed, was this actually Meta’s automated moderation system at work?

    “Content was flagged by our automated systems for review and removed for violating various different policies after being reviewed by our Community Operations team,” a Meta spokesperson was quoted as saying by Newslaundry.

    But this supposed clarification on why the posts were taken down only leads to more questions. Did the process involve both automated tools and in-house human reviewers? To what extent is human oversight exercised over Meta's automated moderation?

    Expand
  10. 10. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #5: If the Timeframe Checks Out

    When exactly was the post pertaining to Yogi Adityanath purportedly taken down? This question was posed by Pranesh Prakash, the co-founder of digital research organisation Centre for Internet Society, to the Twitter account @cringearchivist.

    The account replied that the post was taken down between 2:15 pm and 3:22 pm. The millisecond timestamps in the purported internal report accessed by The Wire were between 5:12 pm IST and 5:15 pm IST on 19 September 2022.

    This might qualify as a potential discrepancy but @cringearchivist refused to specify the timezone, allegedly fearing that it would compromise The Wire’s sources. Hence, it was not possible to corroborate the timestamps in The Wire’s report, at least not in this manner.

    Expand
  11. 11. WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #6: A Review Report That's the Real Deal

    In his tweet thread refuting the allegations by The Wire, Rosen said that the internal report appears to be a fabrication, questioned the URL in the report, and said, “The naming convention is one we don't use.” Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang raised a similar concern that the internal report “seems too formatted/formal (unless a tool was made.)” So, what does an internal post-incident review report look like?

    Even as The Wire's reports remain suspended, the laundry list of unanswered questions makes us wonder if we'll ever know the whole story.

    (Update, 23 October: This report was updated with The Wire's statement retracting its coverage.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

WHAT WE KNOW #1: Posts Were Taken Down

A total of seven Instagram stories and posts that were put up by the Instagram account @cringearchivist were reportedly taken down over a span of seven months. The most recent of the removed posts, dated 19 September, focused on a man worshipping the idol of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE KNOW #2: This Keeps Happening

It’s no secret that Meta’s AI-driven content moderation system often gets things wrong. Several users consistently wonder why certain posts are swiftly taken down by the platform for reasons that don’t add up. To make matters worse, Meta isn’t fully upfront on how it uses its automated tools.

While data pertaining to Meta's automated or "proactive" moderation is disclosed in periodic compliance reports, it does not provide details on how much of the content that was flagged proactively did not, in fact, violate the platform's Community Guidelines upon further review.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE KNOW #3: XCheck Is a Thing

Meta hasn’t disputed that the XCheck or cross-check programme exists. “Our cross-check system was built to prevent potential over-enforcement mistakes and to double-check cases where a decision could require more understanding or there could be a higher risk for a mistake,” the company said in its statement.

Notably, as per Meta, XCheck is not limited to only celebrities or politicians and could also include accounts of prominent journalists as well as human rights organisations.

What came into question, after The Wire's reports, was the scope of privileges granted under XCheck and whether it allows whitelisted users to not just escape content moderation but also, at times, determine it. Meta firmly said no in this regard.
ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE KNOW #4: XCheck Has Been Abused

The Wall Street Journal’s 2021 investigation, that was also based on leaked internal files, had revealed that XCheck users enjoyed blanket exemptions from the platforms’ content moderation rules.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE KNOW #5: FB Oversight Board Had Its Doubts

A month after the XCheck investigation by WSJ broke, the Facebook Oversight Board took the company to task and demanded greater transparency, specifically on XCheck. “In the Board’s view, the team within Facebook tasked with providing information has not been fully forthcoming on cross-check. On some occasions, Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the Board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete,” it said.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #1: Legit Grounds for Reported Takedowns

Two Instagram posts, including the story featuring Yogi Adityanath, were reportedly taken down for violating the platform's guidelines on content related to nudity and sexual activity. But the clip shows a man performing aarti of an idol of Yogi Adityanath.

A post/story can be taken down on these grounds, as per Instagram's guidelines, if it includes "photos, videos and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples."

However, in the Instagram story related to Yogi Adityanath, there was neither any visible nudity nor anything showing explicit or implied sexual intercourse.

On 18 October, Instagram user @cringearchivist claimed that the story related to Yogi Adityanath was quietly reinstated. This was on the same day that The Wire suspended its reports.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #2: meta.com or fb.com

Are both meta.com and fb.com operational? Calling Meta spokesperson Andy Stone’s email in The Wire’s 11 October report "a fake," Meta’s chief information security officer (CISO) Guy Rosen tweeted, “The supposed email address from which it was sent isn’t even Stone’s current email address, and the "to" address isn't one we use here either.”

However, an Intercept journalist named Sam Biddle said that he had received an email from Stone on 31 August with ‘fb.com’ as the email domain name. Former Facebook CISO Alex Stamos said, “Clearly, the company's O365/ProofPoint instance is setup to receive emails for either domain and various employees are sending from different domains.”

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #3: The Tip-Off Method

Twitter user @cringearchivist said that the Instagram account @cringearchivist had gone private in April. The Twitter account posted screenshots purportedly showing the Instagram account as having been set to 'private' 24 weeks ago or “since the last week of April.”

The admin(s) of the Twitter account, who claim that they also run the Instagram account with the same username, said that Amit Malviya’s official handle did not follow the Instagram account @cringearchivist.

If the Instagram account @cringearchivist was a private account since the last week of April and if Amit Malviya’s official account wasn’t one of its followers, could Amit Malviya possibly have reported the post? Was it brought to his attention by one of @cringearchivist's followers?

The Wire's reports did not address this and therefore, this is something that is still an unknown.

Generally, one of the ways in which a user in India can report an Instagram post/story of a private account, even if they do not follow the said account, is by submitting a complaint to Meta's India Grievance Officer through an online contact form or sending it to the platforms' common physical mail address.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #4: Meta's Usage of AI Tools

Given the immediacy with which @cringearchivist’s posts were reviewed and removed, was this actually Meta’s automated moderation system at work?

“Content was flagged by our automated systems for review and removed for violating various different policies after being reviewed by our Community Operations team,” a Meta spokesperson was quoted as saying by Newslaundry.

But this supposed clarification on why the posts were taken down only leads to more questions. Did the process involve both automated tools and in-house human reviewers? To what extent is human oversight exercised over Meta's automated moderation?

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #5: If the Timeframe Checks Out

When exactly was the post pertaining to Yogi Adityanath purportedly taken down? This question was posed by Pranesh Prakash, the co-founder of digital research organisation Centre for Internet Society, to the Twitter account @cringearchivist.

The account replied that the post was taken down between 2:15 pm and 3:22 pm. The millisecond timestamps in the purported internal report accessed by The Wire were between 5:12 pm IST and 5:15 pm IST on 19 September 2022.

This might qualify as a potential discrepancy but @cringearchivist refused to specify the timezone, allegedly fearing that it would compromise The Wire’s sources. Hence, it was not possible to corroborate the timestamps in The Wire’s report, at least not in this manner.

ADVERTISEMENT

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW #6: A Review Report That's the Real Deal

In his tweet thread refuting the allegations by The Wire, Rosen said that the internal report appears to be a fabrication, questioned the URL in the report, and said, “The naming convention is one we don't use.” Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang raised a similar concern that the internal report “seems too formatted/formal (unless a tool was made.)” So, what does an internal post-incident review report look like?

Even as The Wire's reports remain suspended, the laundry list of unanswered questions makes us wonder if we'll ever know the whole story.

(Update, 23 October: This report was updated with The Wire's statement retracting its coverage.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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