The Wire pulls its Meta stories

Q&A with Siddharth Varadarajan, The Wire's founding editor

The Wire pulls its Meta stories
The Wire’s founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajani / (YouTube)

It has been a tumultuous 24 hours for Indian nonprofit newsroom The Wire. On Monday we wrote about the fallout from its investigation into Meta’s Xcheck program, in which the outlet alleged that the company had granted an official in India’s ruling party special privileges allowing him to expedite the removal of Instagram posts. Meta denied the report and a pair of follow-up posts that sought to corroborate it, and both the company and outside experts noted that much of the supporting evidence The Wire published contained discrepancies and even apparent fabrications.

Over the past week, the outlet has offered pugnacious defenses of its reporting, going so far as to refer to “the impossibility of this being a hoax” in an unsigned post earlier this week. But as time went on, more holes in the publication’s story appeared. Earlier today one of the two independent security researchers who the outlet supposedly contacted to “verify” the authenticity of an apparently fake email sent by a Meta spokesman publicly said he had never done the work, and that someone had created a fake email purporting to represent him as well.

On Tuesday morning, The Wire reversed course: the outlet said it would undertake an internal review of its reporting on the subject so far, and in the meantime would remove the articles in question from its website.

“Our recent coverage of Meta began with an incident that reflected the lack of transparency at the social media giant and its various platforms,” the company wrote. “But The Wire has an even greater responsibility to be transparent. And we intend to discharge that responsibility with full seriousness.”

Questions about Meta reports have also drawn fresh scrutiny to a major investigation the The Wire published in January: a report that operatives affiliated with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party use a fantastical app called Tek Fog to manipulate public opinion. According to the report, the app allowed users to get terms to trend on Twitter, take over inactive WhatsApp accounts, and create targeted harassment campaigns against journalists, among other things.

That investigation was co-authored by Devesh Kumar, who also reported on the Xcheck investigation and has been The Wire’s most vocal defender in the current controversy. (We spoke with him on Sunday evening, and he stood by his reporting.) A critical report in January by the journalist Samarth Bansal noted that the Tek Fog investigation relied heavily on screenshots of the app, and that its alleged functionality had never been demonstrated to the journalists who wrote about it.

With evidence that much of the Xcheck investigation involved faked screenshots, some observers are wondering whether the Tek Fog story — which caused a furor in India upon its publication — might be similarly compromised.

On Tuesday morning, Zoë took these questions directly to The Wire’s founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan. Highlights of their conversation follow; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Zoë Schiffer: The Wire has been adamant about standing by these stories. Then this morning, you decide to take down the articles. What happened?

Siddharth Varadarajan: Well, lots of questions have been raised and we don’t seem to be giving answers that satisfy people.

In our own initial review, we recognized there were some inconsistencies. The fact that this expert that one of our researchers said he spoke to for the video verification of the DKIM test has now said publicly he wasn't part of this process made us decide that look, we need to review what happened.

The odd thing is we have an email from him…

It was a spoof email.

A spoof email, but the account is his, I don’t know, I’m a bit confused about this. The colleague who introduced him to our primary researcher had written to him at that email address…

But when [the independent security researcher] wrote to me earlier today I decided to hit the pause button. It’s always better to be certain about the story.

Are you still standing by the stories?

We had a high degree of confidence in the information we put out, based on the sources we have. But we have decided to do a review of all the stages of the story, from the sources, the interactions we had with them, the materials they provided, and how the verification process went.

Your journalists told us that The Wire met with the source who provided the Instagram incident report in-person. Who exactly from The Wire met the source in-person?

Devesh Kumar is the only person who has met the source.

There are two sources involved here. Source A is the person who provided the Instagram report and Source B provided the [Andy Stone] email. In both cases, Devesh has been in touch with them and has met and interacted with them. But a number of my colleagues have interacted with source B, who is a longer standing source of ours, going back four or five months.

I’m just going to ask you point blank. Do you think Devesh Kumar is in on the scheme?

Nothing that I’ve seen would indicate that. I know people are saying this, but he’s been with us for many years, he’s a tech guy, and frankly … it just seems a little far-fetched. So without prejudice to any assumptions, we are going to thoroughly go through every step and try to understand where we stand on this story.

But what I’m hearing from experts is that there is no way someone from The Wire isn’t in on the scheme, given the DKIM verification video.

As I said, I’ve heard people say this, and I’ve kept an open mind on this, but I’m not a technical guy. So at the end of the day, that’s one of the problems with the handling of the story. Essentially, Devesh was the primary technical guy.

Devesh was the person in charge of verifying all the documents ahead of publication. There are a couple tech guys he consults with who we know, who were also involved in some aspects of this….

But this is a weakness for us. Even if we set aside the allegation of malevolence, if one person doesn’t have the chops to handle all the complexities, that also becomes a point of failure.

The difficulty here was the source was essentially quite categorical about how the material he handles is to be dealt with and reviewed. [The source] communicated again that I think there was an NDA signed, some part of the headers, with the timestamps, I don’t know, I’m not a technical guy, email headers are all gobbledygook to me.

Here the background is relevant because we began interacting with the source in July / August and we are working on another set of stories related to Meta and India. So we didn’t want to compromise the source in any way.

That was the main thing we were working on for the past few months. The Instagram thing was supposed to be a riff, until Devesh sounded out a source we had never worked with before, but he had.

And that doesn’t make you worried about Devesh, given previous concerns that have been raised about his reporting on Tek Fog?

I don’t think we should make this about Devesh, frankly. This should be equally about me, I was hands on involved in the story. The point is that, yes there were some questions raised by some aspects of Tek Fog, but a lot of it actually was validated.

Tek Fog is a story we are continuing to work on, and we have found more corroborative material on that, so I am very reluctant to diss Tek Fog. If our review concludes that this set of stories [on Meta] doesn’t add up, it doesn’t mean the Tek Fog stories weren’t up to the mark.

Will the review you’re conducting be internal or external?

The review will be internal, because there are still sensitivities in terms of the material. For some aspects we will involve external experts where needed.

Where are things at with the source?

Both sources are a little unsettled, because the fact is we were subjected to pretty brutal hacking on the day of and the day after story number three. Devesh, myself, at least four other colleagues, mysterious emails were being sent from our accounts. So the sources would have obviously seen news of that. We had to make it public because odd mails were going out to various people. So I would imagine the sources are pretty spooked right now.

Do you plan to talk to them directly?

Yes, as soon as that’s possible.

One more thing about Kumar

When The Wire first published emails that purported to verify the authenticity of an apparently fake email from Meta spokesman Andy Stone, the date on those emails read 2021. After observers pointed this out on Twitter, the publication quietly updated the screenshots with the correct year.

We asked reporter Devesh Kumar, who was the lead byline on the relevant article, about the discrepancy on Sunday. Late yesterday he sent us a long technical explanation that reiterated what he’d said to people on Twitter: the date was incorrect because the person who took the screenshot had recently installed TailsOS, which botched the date.

But as outside experts have pointed out, Tails is known to get the time zone wrong, not the year. There are other inconsistencies in his explanation to us, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll just leave you with one: on Twitter, Kumar repeatedly said he was the one who’d installed TailsOS and manually reset the date. In communications with us, he said “the screenshots of the expert’s emails were taken by a team member…they installed an app…”



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