On October 31, the Delhi Police Crime Branch raided the homes of the editors of Indian independent outlet The Wire and seized their laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices, as a result of a complaint made against them by BJP leader Amit Malviya. Several organizations of journalists condemned this excessive, abusive reaction by the authorities, considering it a further act of harassment and intimidation against journalists in India. They argued that these actions were done in bad faith considering that The Wire had already acknowledged and publicly apologized for its deceptive reports, which they had already taken down regarding Meta.
The saga that spanned over an entire month began early October, when the Indian investigative journalism publication The Wire reported that Meta, the American multinational that owns Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp, had taken down a controversial post made by a socio-political satire Instagram account – “Superhumans of Cringetopia.” The account is known to be critical of Modi’s BJP government and its Hindu nationalist agenda, and has had several posts taken down, despite not having violated any community rules. Meta has yet to provide a conclusive explanation for why this happened. The Wire claimed that the post in question was taken down because it was reported by Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell, due to his alleged XCheck privileges. XCheck, also known as “cross check,” is a Meta program that was intended to avoid the negative media attention caused by enforcing moderation rules on high-profile accounts.
The Wall Street Journal wrote about Meta’s controversial XCheck program in a 2021 investigation. The article showed that XCheck ended up giving a list of VIPs (celebrities, politicians, etc.) certain privileges such as allowing them to post content that violates the platforms’ rules (including sharing fake news) without the sanctions that apply to all other users. So XCheck exists and Meta was not exactly straightforward about what it does. What The Wire was additionally claiming, however, was that the BJP’s Malviya was on the “whitelist” and that this allowed him to automatically take down others’ posts, without human moderation. The Wire’s proof was based on screenshots provided by an alleged whistleblower within Meta. When Meta’s communication chief Andy Stone denied it, The Wire published an alleged leaked internal email supposedly sent by Stone, which the latter called “fabricated.” Other experts also pointed out different discrepancies in the documents and explanations provided by The Wire’s investigator on the topic.
Following inconsistencies and pressure to prove the veracity of published claims and documents, The Wire announced on October 23 that it had temporarily retracted the articles about Meta and started an internal assessment of the reporting (a more detailed timeline of the events can be read here). On October 27, The Wire publicly announced the partial results of its internal review, which showed that the publication had been deceived by one of its investigators, with whom it immediately stopped collaborating. How this was all possible isn’t yet entirely clear, as the review process is still ongoing. However, The Wire acknowledged that “the internal editorial processes which preceded publication of these stories did not meet the standards that The Wire sets for itself and its readers expect from it” and committed to a reevaluation and update of these processes. Additionally, on October 30, the publication filed a police complaint against the journalist, while BJP’s Amit Malviya announced that he had decided to sue The Wire. He then proceeded with the police complaint, leading to the issuance of a First Information Report (FIR) based on which the police raided the editors’ homes.
What was initially thought to have possibly been a sophisticated and “extremely successful op against opposition journalism” now seems more like an inside job that may very well turn out to be a casebook study in poor journalistic practice and breach of ethical norms. Things don’t look too good for The Wire at the moment, but they could also have gone much worse. The inconsistencies in the publication’s latest Meta reporting were big enough to prompt The Wire to retract the articles. This is a necessary move towards admitting and correcting faults and towards restoring trust – one that might just show accountability mechanisms within the branch are doing precisely what they’re supposed to.
The final results of The Wire’s internal review will surely not be trivial, and will probably go down in media history. But whatever they will show about how deception was possible and whether it was part of a broader operation to discredit the publication, some broader facts and questions remain a challenge that should not be overlooked. And herein lies the core of “The Wire vs. Meta” saga.
An unequal battle: small newsrooms vs. tech giants and state repression
Over the past years, independent journalism worldwide has faced an increasingly challenging and unsafe environment, all the more so under authoritarian and far-right regimes like India or Brazil, that regard journalists as enemies of the state. “Solidarity, speaking up for others, is more important than ever. But that too has become a perilous activity”, acclaimed author Arundhati Roy, who also writes for The Wire, recently said.
The Wire is an independent, non-profit online publication in India that has won numerous awards over the years for its investigations. It is considered among the few media outlets that have managed to remain critical of India’s far-right government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The former Facebook Inc., rebranded as Meta in 2021, is one of the big five American tech conglomerates. It has a big stake in India, which is the company’s biggest market. The dispute between the Meta giant and the small Indian independent publication The Wire brings to the fore once again questions about the seemingly uncontrollable impact that Meta has come to have in shaping media as well as national politics. It also raises to the fore the difficulties around holding it accountable or forcing it to be more transparent with its questionable (to say the least) tactics.
The elephant in the newsroom
The Wire vs. Meta story resurfaces concerns about the impact of IT giants on the media and information landscape, their relation with authoritarian governments, and the capacity of journalism to uncover the true depths of the governments’ abuse, power, and deceitfulness. And this is where the difficult, uncomfortable, and yet-to-be-answered questions arise. How can smaller independent newsrooms ensure the necessary resources for complex, tech-savvy investigations, especially in a hostile political environment that endangers the physical safety of journalists critical of the government? How can they better do their job of scrutinizing those in power and protecting themselves and their sources from oppressive tactics when governments ally with multinational conglomerates and create an even wider disproportion of resources and power?
How can a balance be reached between the need to uncover secretive abusive practices and demand accountability from powerful actors, on the one hand, and the need for sound proof, on the other? What does irrefutable proof look like in complex investigations against the secretive abusive practices of powerful, unaccountable IT giants cozying up to far-right, repressive governments? What is the cost and who pays the price?
…and the elephant outside
As already pointed out, Meta has yet to respond to a series of questions raised by journalists. However, this time, despite the company’s track record of lying, Meta managed to avoid public scrutiny and pressures to prove its claims, which were now, justly so, directed at The Wire. However, as Apar Gupta, head of the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi, insightfully observed, the “tragic” part about the ongoing controversy is that “it has focused public energy [more] on fact-checking The Wire than continuing the need for human rights assessments of Silicon Valley platforms.” The need for constant scrutiny of giants like Meta stems from the many reports on their abuses, which include supporting censorship by authoritarian governments, allowing disinformation, hatred and violence that has led to ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and Myanmar, among others.
Previous investigations have shown how India’s far-right party has been protected by Meta time and again. Based on information from a whistleblower, The Guardian showed in 2021 how Facebook deliberately allowed a coordinated network of fake accounts for months to artificially boost the popularity of a BJP politician. It wasn’t the first time Facebook had protected and favoured BJP members. It did the same for the President of Honduras, by knowingly allowing him to artificially increase his popularity through fake news and attacks on its opposition for about a year.
Facebook Inc’s first reaction to The Guardian’s questions was to deny the allegations. After being confronted with more evidence, it offered some partial information, avoiding to answer the most specific questions. Other investigations have also shown how the BJP’s online political propaganda machine uses platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp to publish pro-BJP posts and attack opponents and critical voices. Some of the pro-BJP propaganda has been found to consist of disinformation, often targeting their opponents.
Deception is no stranger to Meta tactics.
The attacks of BJP’s propaganda network on The Wire
One of the difficulties of the current controversy was how to hold journalists to the profession’s standards, spot the inconsistencies in their coverage and push for accountability, while at the same time not fuelling the trolling and coordinated attacks aimed to discredit opposition journalism. The BJP propaganda apparatus seems to have been put into action, attacking its declared ‘enemy’ publication The Wire on various online channels, as The Wire’s ombudsperson – Pamela Philipose also pointed out.
Most visibly, OpIndia. An Indian website that promotes fundamentalist Hindu nationalism and has been shown by previous investigations to be a tool of political propaganda in support of and with undisclosed links to the BJP, has launched a whole series of attacks on The Wire – over 30 articles on the subject within a month. The radical-right website speaks of a “liberal cabal” and attempts to intimidate its journalists and discredit the publication altogether.
OpIndia has in the past published numerous fake news and hate articles against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, but also against political and ideological opponents of the BJP – particularly on the left. The attacks against The Wire are not just politically motivated but also ideological, as they reproduce the anti-communist/anti-marxist discourse of the far-right that has become so commonplace in other countries and continents as well. In addition, online trolls, some of them known for their activity in harassing and smearing journalists, have been active on Twitter joining the effort to discredit the entire publication and celebrate its shortcomings.
However, the credibility of a media outlet is determined by its entire editorial work and by how honest and committed it is in holding itself accountable and learning the lessons it needs to learn. The stakes for The Wire to reestablish trust are even bigger if we consider the need for independent, critical media in a country where freedom of the press is seriously undermined by a far-right government that controls the press and endangers the lives of journalists, fuelling violence against different religious, ethnic, caste-based minorities.
BJP and the fundamentalist far-right: a danger for journalists
Apart from the current OpIndia attacks on The Wire, various international organisations monitoring press freedom have pointed out in recent years that journalists in India critical of the government are facing increasingly violent coordinated online harassment campaigns by Hindu fundamentalist activists. These campaigns target in particular vocal women journalists and those who oppose the BJP-backed Hindu far-right, through hate speech online campaigns, death threats, intimidation tactics involving the judiciary and police or even physical violence and killings by vigilante groups.
In 2022 India ranked 150th out of 180, its lowest position so far, in the RSF’s (Reporters without Borders’) World Press Freedom Index report. It is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with an average of 4 journalists killed each year because of their work.
The violence of Hindu nationalism and its international friends
According to RSF, violence against journalists, media ownership concentration and political partisanship have increased significantly since Prime Minister Modi (BJP) came to power in 2014, pushing forward his ethno-nationalist religious fundamentalist agenda. Hindutva ideology is a far-right, neo-fascist ideology, which has its origins in colonialism and is directly connected to Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Modi has also built a Hindutva diaspora network through the Overseas Friends of the BJP and has close ties with US right-wing politics, consolidated during his alliance with Trump, while also gaining the support of some Democrats and a Biden staffer.
Apart from journalists and especially women journalists critical of the government and Hindu nationalism, other frequent targets of increasing violence and discrimination are Muslims, Christians, women and the most oppressed castes at the bottom of India’s socio-economic hierarchy.
BJP spies on The Wire journalists with Pegasus
An international journalistic investigation in 2021 revealed that the Modi government is spying on its citizens, especially critical journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, intellectuals or members of the opposition, using Pegasus surveillance software. This is a spyware that is used by many states, authoritarian and democratic, to spy on their citizens. Among the journalists spied on with Pegasus are at least six from The Wire, the investigations revealed, placing the publication as the BJP’s main target among newsrooms.
Pegasus is one of the most advanced and expensive of such softwares, developed by Israeli company NSO Group, with which the BJP has been able to access emails, contacts, messages and even record video and audio using the cameras of monitored phones of opponents regarded as enemies of the state, according to Amnesty International.
Building accountability AND solidarity within the independent media branch
Just like in any other industry, journalists and media organisations can also make mistakes and it is not just the smaller newsrooms that are vulnerable to them. Famous cases such as that of Stephen Randall Glass, former journalist at The New Republic who was fabricating entire stories, have made history. Such obvious journalistic fraud is, nonetheless, an exception, while much more common are what The Guardian called “errors of judgement.” In 2021, The Guardian published an entire list of such errors that, in hindsight, they acknowledged to have made over 200 years of reporting.
What makes good journalism is not the absolute lack of mistakes, but an honest assessment and accountability for errors, backed up by a constant process of learning from one’s mistakes, setting up and revising journalistic norms, codes of ethics, internal practices so as to not repeat them. To this point, The Wire vs. Meta controversy has raised more questions than it managed to answer about the challenges that independent newsrooms, big or small, are facing today. Many of them are related to the scarce resources available to them, a result of people’s growing distrust in media organisations that have oftentimes sold “public interest” for profit and private interests. Others have to do with state capture, that transforms media in a mere megaphone of power and politics.
This translates into a growing number of existential threats to independent journalists on all continents, in democratic as well as authoritarian regimes, surveillance, harassment, oppression through overt or covert means, and through increasingly sophisticated and opaque techniques. With the digitalization of newsrooms and the new complicated realities of social media platforms, post-truth and digital disinformation, traditional newsrooms now need transdisciplinary journalists and experts with specific expertise – like cybersecurity – that goes beyond journalism. This may lead to challenges in working together, in verifying the work of such experts and ensuring the necessary expertise especially when resources are scarce, be they economic or knowledge-driven.
It is precisely why in such challenging contexts, independent journalism needs both transparency, public scrutiny of mistakes and accountability, as well as solidarity, if it is to not become extinct. A solidarity that asks how can journalists and newsrooms be better supported to do their work independently, freely, accurately? How can journalists be better protected from the commercial and political pressures, from harassment and existential threats? And how can they be justly held accountable for their mistakes, while making sure they are protected from the concerted efforts of extremely powerful actors to instrumentalize one failure in order to destroy the whole publication? Can journalists and media organizations build up such solidarity within the branch? These are some of the less discussed questions that this media saga should raise in the face of a growing facistization of our societies whose top targets include oppositional journalists.
Adina Marincea is a Bucharest-based researcher specialized in media studies, currently monitoring and analyzing far-right radicalization in Romania, with a focus on (neo)fascist discourse. She periodically publishes her analyses and online investigations in journals and in mainstream media as well as on left-wing, feminist and anarchist platforms. Adina is part of several anti-authoritarian collectives and has been involved in feminist, anti-fascist, anti-racist organizing, as well as in the housing justice movement.