The Wire blows a fuse

This blog follows The Economist’s style guide, which prescribes the spelling “program” in reference to computer programming and “programme” in all other contexts. As I work for an American corporation, in my official mails, I use “program” for both senses. Keeping track of these differences in spelling does cause some mental strain.

The Wire, the torch bearer of the anti-establishment movement in India, is too busy to follow style guides. Its exposé claiming that Meta gives Amit Malviya, the head of BJP”s IT Cell, plenary authority to take down any Instagram post he reports changes the spelling from “programme” to “program” and back within the same article, indeed in one instance within the same paragraph. It is understandable that given the focus on saving the nation from bigotry and authoritarianism, the small matter of which colonial power’s spelling to use does not get much attention.

In response to their exposé, they have received an appreciative mail from a whistle-blower a “senior employee in Meta’s privacy and security team”, who worked for the company for a decade who mentions his disquiet with the “XCheck programme”. The whistle-blower is a man after my own heart. After spending a decade in an American corporation (perhaps in the US) he is fastidious enough to switch to the British spelling when writing an email to an Indian publication.

I had not heard of the XCheck programme till The Wire made me aware of it. Apparently, the world was made aware of the programme’s existence by the WSJ’s Facebook Files series. The story on the XCheck programme is not behind a paywall, at least for me. I highly recommend reading it if you are able to. Unlike The Wire, WSJ adopts a sober tone, is built on multiple sources and describes Facebook’s position fairly. Reading the WSJ report, I could actually sympathize with Facebook’s point of view.

Facebook, like any social network, has some challenges when moderating posts by political officials, celebrities and well-known people in general. For example, there are rules that users shouldn’t use the platform to promote violence. But for government officials, threatening violence is often part of their job. For example, in response to a terrorist strike, a leader may say that they will bomb countries that harbour terrorists.

Secondly, even when a celebrity’s post clearly violates the social network’s rules, it may serve public interest to keep it up because of inherent newsworthiness. Traditional media generally handle this problem through editorial control. But due to the scale of social media, they have to rely on automated moderation, which is inherently flawed. Strange moderation decisions by algorithms quickly turn to memes; when prominent users are subject to those decisions, they become prime time news.

XCheck, or “cross check” appears to be Facebook’s attempt to ameliorate this impossible problem. XCheck users’ posts aren’t subject to automated moderation. Instead, they are “cross-checked” by some humans. The Journal’s exposé claims that in an attempt to avoid false positives, this process has led to many false negatives, such as celebrities posting revenge porn that stayed up for too long awaiting XCheck moderation. It also presents internal memos where Facebook employees express unhappiness about this.

But it is one thing to have lower moderation standards for prominent users. It is quite another to allow them an automated way to take down posts of other users. If The Wire’s reporting is correct, it would imply that the Wall Street Journal, that found so many bad things in in its Facebook investigation, missed this truly evil practice that was occurring adjacent to the questionable practice they were investigating. Facebook employees who were so freely expressing their misgivings about other questionable policies failed to express their outrage over this, or the Journal failed to find the smoking guns.

The Wire’s reporting shows no awareness that it is making an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. It is so focused on taking down Amit Malviya that it fails to ask the basic questions – how widespread is the practice? Do all XCheck users get the privilege? Only those in India? Only certain countries? Only Amit Malviya? Are they aware of their privilege? Do they get a special interface to do the reporting?

Let’s say that all XCheck users got the privilege. It is a widespread programme encompassing many users, including those who are critical of Meta. Surely at least one of them would have noticed and blown the whistle? If only a subset got the privilege, wouldn’t it have raised some questions (to put it mildly) within the organization? If there were the smallest grain of truth in the report, the WSJ and other news organizations that have done critical reporting on Facebook/Meta in the past would be asking themselves how they missed something so big and would be tapping their sources right now. Instead, we are seeing The Wire successfully creating a fog of war around the authenticity of mails, which is causing us to miss the elephant on the battlefield.

In response to questions about The Wire’s reporting, its defenders have claimed that it is known for high quality investigative journalism, and this reputation should shield it from having to show its work. If The Wire has any reputation for investigative journalism, this reporting gives no evidence of it. The evidence, such as it is, looks more like an artistic depiction of an evil corporation than a realistic portrayal of how wrongdoing actually occurs. For an actual example of investigative journalism, look at the WSJ report once again, and then when you go back to The Wire’s report, you comprehend the damage the Tehelka model of journalism, optimized for social media soundbytes, does to journalism. The point of The Wire’s report isn’t to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced that there is a cozy relationship between the BJP and Meta, any more than the point of RRR is to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced of the evil of the British Raj. It is to create cringy memes that will be used by its supporters to share among themselves. In that, it has succeeded.