Backstory: Getting to the Heart of the Meta

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The recent Wire-Meta controversy provoked many attempts to seek out The Wire’s ombudsperson.

Where is she? Why has she not commented on the issue? Is she chickening out? 

One tweeter peremptorily demanded to know: “Despite the global hit to its credibility, @thewire in‘s ombudsman @pamelaphilipose, whose job it is “to add a new layer of transparency and accountability to [their] editorial functioning” has been completely silent so far on its Meta coverage.

The tweet got retweeted by many sharing a similar impatience. There were others chasing the story who called in to shake out a comment or two. Well, any regular reader of this column will know that I generally hold my thoughts on media matters big and small for this fortnightly telling of the back story.

As for The Wire’s credibility taking a “hit”, I do not for a moment believe this to be the case, because media institutions which take their adversarial role seriously are far bigger than any individual story, good, bad or indifferent.

There were three broad responses from the media universe to the Meta controversy.

The first tended to be generally supportive of The Wire’s coverage, driven largely by the belief that it would not consciously seek to perpetrate a fraud on its readers and it pointed to some serious anomalies.

The second category – and this is a large section it needs to be acknowledged – was those who exhibited uninhibited glee at the supposed implosion of The Wire’s reputation. Among these I must mark for special mention the editorial efforts of OpIndia, an unabashedly right-wing, anti-Muslim, Hindutva-driven organ, which published at least eight pieces on the issue, delighting in the supposed take-down of a “leftist propaganda website” populated by a “liberal cabal” that glories in purveying “fake news”(with ugly illustrations to embellish their text).

Finally, there is the category of serious media watchers as well as those who understand the grammar of the internet and the treacherous terrain it can create for journalism. Among them are those genuinely perturbed by these developments and in their number I would count Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, who observed to The Washington Post that, “This outcome is tragic because it has focused public energy [more] on fact-checking The Wire than continuing the need for human rights assessments of Silicon Valley platforms.”

It is to the first and third categories that I address the following comments because the second category is plainly not interested in the heart of the Meta, or to put it another way, the heart of the matter. 

The Meta investigation conducted by The Wire is prima facie a significant one, and offers potentially important insights into the workings of social media behemoths that not only control global conversations but sit at the commanding heights of the international economy. The backroom deals they strike with political and corporate interests across the world, and most conspicuously in India, have been extensively documented. 

However The Wire’s story failed certain foundational tests, most patently in its citing of sources. Many of these sources either did not stand by what The Wire put out, or were misunderstood, or were wrongly quoted, or possibly had second thoughts. As they went public on distancing themselves from the investigation, it began to tilt alarmingly like a chair deprived of a couple of its legs.

Rebuttals, if they are to work, must carry conviction. Despite The Wire’s efforts to iterate and reiterate the dependability of its account, and cite evidence that withstands the scrutiny of peers, things seemed to unravel at a pace that outstripped any effort to correct public perception. The doubts over the authenticity of the Andy Stone email are a case in point as also its lack of due diligent scrutiny into what the powers of the XCheck really are.

Finally, there were serious mis-steps in the firefighting that The Wire did when contrary evidence piled up.

Its process to shore up the credibility of the story actually contributed to undermining it. The question then is: when do you stop defending yourself, take a step back and start considering corrective measures?

I believe that The Wire delayed this process unnecessarily before finally doing the right thing and deciding to review its reporting. The piece, ‘The Wire Intends to Review Its Reporting on Meta’ (October 18), stated that “this will include a review of all documents, source material and sources used for our stories on Meta. Based on our sources’ consent, we are also exploring the option of sharing original files with trusted and reputed domain experts as part of this process.” 

It was dead on when it observed that any story seeking to expose the lack of transparency in Meta has an even greater responsibility to be transparent. I look forward to this process yielding real gains in the long run to The Wire

But before I end I would like to consider briefly the ugly legacy of political partisanship of Meta-Facebook in India.

It was not just modest portals like The Wire that had exposed this but newspapers like The Wall Street Journal (‘Afraid of Angering BJP, Facebook Ignored Hate Speech Rules for Party’s Anti-Muslim Posts: Report’, The Wire, August 15, 2020).

During the entire The Wire versus Meta interregnum, Meta failed to conduct itself with transparency. Not only did it quietly reinstate, without explanation, the redacted Instagram post put out by @cringearchivist, which had set off the whole story in the first place, it failed to explain its rebuttal on Andy Stone’s email address, which was evidently in use fairly recently. It also did not bother to identify the person who created the spoof workplace account. In fact, in its effort to neutralise the negative publicity it received from The Wire expose, it resorted to suggestive ripostes and sly imputations, such as the statement that “We hope that The Wire is the victim of this hoax, not the perpetrator.”

It appears then that Meta knows a lot more than it has let on, even as it tried to muddy the image of The Wire. In the process, the reputation of a world renowned social media platform has itself been muddied.


Mediatisation of India is mobile

If there is one thing that came through emphatically in the Media in India Access, Practices, Concerns and Effects report just produced by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Lok Niti and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, it is that India – despite being a poor to middle-income country – is being overtaken by the smartphone.

The lives of almost every section across the country are being shaped by this device even as I write this. Among its major findings is that, “Around seven out of every ten citizens in the country today own a mobile phone and of them nearly two-thirds are smartphone owners”.

This incidentally was not the case until about three years ago, when the last report of this kind came out. The basic mobile phone was that point far more in use. The pandemic undoubtedly hastened the smartphone-centric trend with the overwhelming number of internet users in India accessing the net through their phones.

The Report carries an interesting graph of what people do with their mobile phones when not using them for calls. A lot depends on their age-group but those between 15-17 spend the most time sending/reading messages, using social media, taking selfies, listening to music/songs, or studying or attending online classes.

Another stand-out trend is that over two-fifth of mobile phone users claimed that they spend over three hours daily with their mobile phones, with those between 15-17 spending even up to 5.33 hours on their devices. This, in turn, has real psychological repercussions: one-third of mobile phone users reported feeling “extremely restless” if they were separated from their phones. A familiar feeling for all of us, no doubt!


The missing Dalit journalist

An entire generation of journalists has emerged since 1996, when senior journalist B.N. Uniyal, at the urging of Washington Post correspondent, Kenneth J. Cooper, went in search of a Dalit journalist in Delhi and concluded that there was not one.

A piece carried in The Wire, quoting the recent Oxfam India-Newslaundry report, reiterates that the situation has not changed in any substantive way (‘Around 88% Of Top Leadership Positions in Indian Media Held by Upper Castes: Report’, October 17). According to it, an overwhelming percentage of top leadership positions in the Indian media continue to be occupied by ‘upper’ caste professionals – 88% – and that over 60% of articles in English and Hindi newspapers carried bylines of people from the ‘upper’ castes, with less than 5% from the SC/ST communities and 10% from OBCs. The television screens relate a similar story: 55.6% of English news anchors were from the ‘upper’ castes, there was no anchor with either SC or ST backgrounds. 

Interestingly, a similar study conducted in 2018 had the very same result. Nothing seems to be changing on this issue, despite the greater scrutiny that is now being paid to the lack of Dalit representation in our newsrooms.

Clearly, both owners and editors are indifferent. Seven years ago the Media Studies Group and the Justice for Dalit Journalist Nagaraju Koppula Campaign had presented a charter that had demanded, among other things, that employment opportunities in the media be made available to professionals from marginalised groups by private media houses and that they formulate guidelines for an institutional mechanism to address grievances of such individuals once they have been employed.

The response to these eminently sensible ideas was a very loud silence. Nothing stirs this bog of apathy, not even the awareness that historically efforts like the 1978 initiative of the American Society of News Editors to ensure that people of colour entered the profession had indeed made a difference to the composition of newsrooms in the US.

The few efforts like those made by the Asian College of Journalism to award scholarship for Dalit journalists have been far too few and far between. What is needed is a concerned campaign that makes this issue one of national importance because representation is central to the generation of news that is caste-inclusive. 

Incidentally, The Wire also pointed a finger at itself, noting that exactly half of all articles written for it were by journalists from the general category, while 12.4% were written by journalists from the OBC category, and 3.2% from the SC communities. As for contributions from those of the ST communities, it was a pathetic 0.6%.


Creeping communalisation

News reporters of the print media have been always cautioned about ensuring that their reportage remains free of communal biases. There was even a period when the communities involved in riots or hate acts were not named.

Today, the principle seems to be increasingly discarded.

A recent report I read in The Hindustan Times, headlined ‘Man kidnaps 8-year-old girl, batters her to death in Narela’ had the following, very offensive line: “The suspect, a Muslim, was booked for kidnapping and killing the girl, who was a Hindu. Senior police officers, however, ruled out any communal motive behind the crime.”

The point is, if the communal angle had been ruled out by the police, why did the reporter feel the need to highlight the communities of the criminal and the assaulted girl?


Crackdown on Iran’s courageous journalists

In my last column I mentioned the case of Nilufer Hamedi, a reporter for the Tehran-based Daily Shraq, who was the first to report on Amini as she lay in a coma in her hospital bed and recorded her descent into death (‘Backstory: Scheherazade Now Tells Her 1001 Stories as an Iranian Woman. Media Must Amplify Her Voice’, October 8).

Today Nilufer is held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin jail. Recently, I came across a public statement that Nilufar’s boss put out after she was arrested. I want to cite it as an example of what a supportive editor should do when staffers are punished by the authorities for their stories. He wrote: “We hope Hamedi returns to the office. Puts her bag on the table…and writes about deprived and anonymous women who are victims of prejudice.”


Readers write in…

Mominpore riot

M.K. Shah wants to know why media outlets neglected to cover the Mominpore riot:

“Reporting riots that affect the minority community is ‘secular’ while reporting riots that affect Hindus is ‘communal’. The media outlets which cover anti-Hindu riots are ‘right wing’. The pattern of riot reporting over the last three or four years clearly exposes its anti-Hindu agenda of the media.”


Surge in summary punishments of Muslims

Human Rights Watch sent in the following report (it has been edited for size)

“The authorities in India are increasingly using summary and abusive punishments against Muslims deemed to have broken the law.  In several states ruled by the BJP, the authorities have demolished Muslim homes and properties without legal authorisation, and most recently, publicly flogged Muslim men accused of disrupting a Hindu festival.

“On October 4, 2022, in Kheda district, Gujarat state, police arrested 13 people for allegedly throwing stones at a ‘garba’ ceremonial dance during a Hindu festival. A police officer in civilian clothes wearing a gun holster was filmed publicly flogging several Muslim men…

“On October 2 in Mandsaur district, Madhya Pradesh state, police filed a case of attempted murder and rioting against 19 Muslim men accused of throwing stones at a garba event and detained seven of them. Two days later, without any legal authorization, the authorities demolished the homes of three of the men, claiming they were constructed illegally.

“In April, the authorities in Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh state, Anand and Sabarkantha districts in Gujarat state, and Jahangirpuri neighborhood in Delhi responded to communal clashes by summarily demolishing property, most of it owned by Muslims. The clashes occurred after religious processions of armed Hindu men passing through Muslim localities during Hindu festivals accompanied by anti-Muslim sloganeering…

A photo of district authorities demolishing 12 shops belonging to Talab Chowk Masjid committee, a day after the riots in Khargone. Photo: Author provided

“The authorities razed at least 16 houses and 29 shops in Khargone in MP, where rioting had taken place. …In Khambhat city in Anand district, the authorities reportedly demolished at least 10 shops and 17 warehouses to  punish “miscreants” for stoning a religious procession. The authorities also at least 6 properties in Sabarkantha district, Gujarat. In Delhi, the authorities used nine bulldozers and demolished at least 25 shops, vending carts and houses. The BJP’s Delhi president had written to the BJP-run municipal authority to identify unlawfully constructed properties of those accused of communal clashes and “run bulldozers over them.”

“In June, a BJP politician’s remarks about the Prophet Mohammed led to widespread protests by Muslims across the country. Police in Jharkhand state allegedly used excessive force against protestors,  killing two, while the authorities in Uttar Pradesh unlawfully demolished homes of Muslims suspected of being “key conspirators” behind the violence that erupted during the protests.

“The authorities carried out the demolitions without any legal authorization or due process, including proper prior notice or an opportunity to be heard even though affected families had been living there for decades and in many cases, possessed the necessary documents to prove this…

“The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party, prohibits discrimination on any ground and obligates states to ensure that everyone is equal before the law and to ensure equal protection of the law…“

For more information visit https://www.hrw.org/asia/india.

Finally, here’s wishing all our readers a very Happy Diwali/Deepavali!

Write to [email protected].

Note: Details of Dr Akshay Bajad’s email to the ombudsperson have been edited out at his request.