Tech giants and news organizations sparring over news reporting isn’t new. Companies often complain to journalists about getting nuances wrong and usually air their dismay “off the record.” Journalists usually agree to include the rebuttals provided the companies can offer the same assertions on-record. The companies don’t follow through and the conversation typically ends there and the world never finds out about what is more often than not a very mundane thing.
That’s one of the factors that makes Indian news outlet The Wire’s reporting this week on Instagram and Meta’s responses remarkable. Lawmakers and newsrooms in the U.S. and India are closely watching one of the strangest episodes of a newsroom and its subject publicly disputing — and doubling down on their claims.
The Wire, an organization known best for holding the ruling party to account in a way that very few do, reported on Monday that Facebook has given governing party BJP’s top digital operative an unchecked ability to remove content from the platform. The report, which relies on what it claims are internal documents, appears to advance WSJ’s reporting of an internal company program called XCheck, where Facebook shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process.
Meta insists that the XCheck program “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts” and has publicly called the documents “fabricated.” Andy Stone, Meta’s comms, tweeted: “The posts in question were surfaced for review by automated systems, not humans. And the underlying documentation appears to be fabricated.”
The unexpected twist came on Tuesday, when Wire doubled down on its reporting, claiming to include a picture that appeared to show an alleged email Stone sent to internal teams where he is questioning members how the documents leaked. The picture also showed that Facebook maintains a watchlist of journalists.
Wire’s response immediately went viral for several hours and most people believed it. In a way that separates it from most other companies, Facebook has earned a reputation where its denials are not really taken on face value. This is the reason why at least two major outlets in India have chosen not to acknowledge Wire’s story — nor Meta’s denials of those reporting, according to two people familiar with the matter. (Though in its credit, Facebook is suing the Indian government over right to users’ privacy.)
The matter was considered closed, and it appeared that Facebook, which identifies India as its largest market by users, was trying to mislead again.
But the drama’s lifespan has been extended as Meta has since doubled down on its denial, saying Meta’s Stone’s purported email in the story is “fake.”
Guy Rosen, the chief security information officer at Meta, said: “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. There is no such email. That same story makes reference to an internal journalist ‘watchlist.’ There is no such list.”
Facebook, like many other companies, does maintain dossiers on journalists. I (Manish) know this because they accidentally sent me the link to one about five years ago. Meta also does maintain email addresses with the fb.com domain. (The generic press contact remains a fb.com email. Though that’s not proof that Stone still actively uses a fb.com email.)
Wire is standing by its reporting. However, if Meta is proven right, tricking a reputable outlet into running an explosive story that could’ve been easily refuted by a big megacorp like Meta would damage press credibility across India at a time when the country’s media is increasingly grappling with a series of existential crises. Who would have the least to lose and most to gain here, especially if the goal was to undermine credibility in the press?