The Wire controversy .....
In early October, the India-based news reporting site The Wire and Social Metaverse company Meta was involved in an internet battle that grabbed serious media headlines. It all started with stories that the Wire put up against Meta, alleging the latter of giving the IT head of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, Amit Malviya, stand-out powers of taking down Instagram and Facebook posts that did not sit well with their ideology, through the feature that allows one to report offensive posts. While generic reports on posts go through a series of checks by Meta employees before they are taken down, the Wire claimed that Amit Malviya belongs to the Meta XCheck list, and hence any post reported by him cannot be retrieved any longer. The XCheck is a program by Meta that supposedly privileges high-profile users who might be influential personalities in some way or other, with special rights on social media platforms under Meta’s banner. The post in question was an October 6 post by an account named @cringeactivist that posted about Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister’s temple violating guidelines. The Instagram story by the account mocked a video that showed an Ayodhya resident worshipping an idol of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath in a temple dedicated to him. The Wire claimed that the post was reported under ‘sexual activity and nudity’ by Malviya and was resultantly removed from the networking site. Andy Stone, the head of communications at Meta refuted the claims stressing that the individuals in its XChecklist have no special provisions with respect to reporting posts, since that was regulated by an automated system and not humans.
The Wire replied to Meta quoting the latter’s defense to be fabricated, and in turn posted email snapshots that they claimed were sent by Stone to his internal team, reproaching Meta employees for whistleblowing, for the leak of confidential information pertaining to Amit Malviya’s exceptional power, on which the news reporting site based its report. The said document with confidential information also claimed that the editor-in-chief of the Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan and the author of the story that started the battle, Jahnavi Sen were now on Meta’s watchlist. This move by the Wire was further countered by Meta with its Chief information security officer Guy Rosen initiating a Twitter thread to claim that the emails put forth by the Wire were fabricated and fake, since the email addresses visible in the pictures posted by the Wire were supposedly not Stone’s current email address, and the addresses they were sent to were not in use then either. Guy Rosen also went forth to assert that the employees at the Wire were not on any ‘watchlist’ of Meta, because the latter did not at all exist.
The Wire responded to the above claims with claims to have conducted a DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) test in order to verify the authenticity of the email. The reporting site even posted a video that showed the authentication process, further aiming to prove that the outlet shows were signed off by two independent security experts, to finally conclude that the emails were at full capacity real. Meta, however, refuted the claims again to accuse the Wire of gross fabrications. The final accusations by Meta led to The Wire withdrawing the posts until further and more in-depth investigations and probes were launched into the matter.
The social media giant company owning Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Meta, has stolen media headlines for its content moderation policies previously as well; it has misled about how it functions and moderates content before. The author of the story against Meta, Janhavi Sen had initially written to Meta about the arbitrary takedown. On receiving no return of communication from Meta, Sen on behalf of the Wire contacted their sources in Meta, who confirmed that India’s governing body indeed enjoyed exceptional power and influence over the content moderation within Meta. This brings up significant questions about the control of free speech and the liberty of expression over the internet for citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
As the social media giant that it is, Meta enjoys landmark influences over the proverbial ‘public square’ of discourse and discussion. Meta has been challenged before for its policies on the regulation of speech, which can limit the diversity of expression, regulate and manipulate public opinion, and target dissident voices. While the digital era certainly has its perks, it comes with its perils. Issues of accountability and traceability of information without invigorating one’s privacy in the digital space have been tried to be solved, and this has bolstered the creation of various laws, that include the deployment of artificial intelligence tools that oversee cyberspace and aim at regulating it. Meta has previously been criticized for discounting grave human rights issues. It recognized that the company faces severe criticism for risks for hateful and discriminatory speech but has done little to counter the outcomes; Meta has then done little to control the spread of detrimental content, hate speech, misinformation, and alienating political speech, and many questions pertaining to human rights crop therein.
In 2021, ex-Facebook employees Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang turned whistleblowers on their erstwhile organisation when they exposed Meta for being aware of fake accounts that were instrumental in dissipating misleading information, instigating violence against minorities, and propagating hate speech. The ex-employees, however, also ascertained that its hate-speech rules and policies were barred from applying to individuals and groups that were affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, even in case of them being reported internally. Meta’s Human Rights Impact Assessment of India which was to address critical human rights issues too has thus been critiqued widely for failing to put forth a neutral stance on the digital exchange over its platforms in the country.
Breaking it down ....
Article 19 of the UDHR and Article 19(2) of the ICCPR underline the freedom of speech and expression, and also includes under their purview these rights over the digital landscape and social media. No matter what the medium is over which these rights are to be expressed, these apply to one and all citizens of the country; they are the fundamental rights of every individual. Over many years, India has experienced a digital boom and digital accessibility has increased. While the rights certainly do not give anyone the right to speak or publish without responsibility, it also does not bring in any room for discrimination, or privileging any individual or group’s preferences, as certainly was the basis on which the Wire called out Meta since the post that was put down on Instagram on the basis of ‘nudity and sexual content’ did not indeed include any such content.
In 2019, Meta which then was called Facebook had put forth that a 40-member board would take calls on what posts had to be taken down on the platform. This was quoted as Facebook’s version of the Supreme Court. Meta, after all, is a private company that is free to do what its users most seek. In May 2022, Meta claimed that the rights under Article 19 of free speech in India could not be invoked against its various platforms, since being a private entity, it cannot be employed to discharge public function. This is telling of how conversations, voices, and discourses over Meta could run the risk of human bias. This makes Meta’s platforms undemocratic, to say the least.
While the Instagram post from the username @cringearchivist has now been restored silently by Meta, and the latter has launched an investigation into the dispute over the documents and emails, it remains unclear what the verdict on the matter could turn out to be. It remains a mystery to us spectators who have been following the issue closely, but it does bring forth important questions concerning free digital expression and the digital gatekeepers in the country. While one might disagree with what someone else says, going forward to delete such posts on the basis of claims that don’t fit the ground, with the social media giant Meta’s supposed AI fuelling it certainly seems misplaced. Social media has grown in India and across the globe precisely owing to its allowances of offering a free space of expression and opportunity to network in contemporary times. The internet offers a platform for citizens of a nation-state to put forth their sentimentalities, either bluntly or creatively. Meta has time and again been accused of having strong ties with the ruling party in India, and if that is indeed the case, voices of dissent and contrary opinions would be at the risk of being snubbed under the voice of the majority. The verdict on this battle of The Wire vs Meta would be rather interesting once it completely unfolds, for it would be telling of how much of a free space the digital landscape of India really is. Social media discourses form a platform that could be a new source of accountability for the government in power, and silencing voices of dissent would be no less than the most undemocratic move that could be instrumentalized in the modern day.
About the author …..
This post is written by Triparna Sarkar, a student of Presidency University, Kolkata. Triparna is a student of sociology with interest in themes of social stratification, culture, gender, and their nodes of intersection.