Over the last few days, a very familiar battle has been playing out across India’s digital landscape — a major social media player being accused of being biased towards the ruling power.
The company in question is Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which have 447 million, 309 million and 563 million Indian users, respectively.
The accuser is the journalism outlet The Wire, which has often found itself at loggerheads with the Indian state and corporate entities.
And the claim is that through an internal whitelisting policy called XCheck, Meta favours the Indian government and government-friendly users for both content posting and reporting.
This is not unlike the recent Facebook controversy where it was claimed that senior employees were unofficially acting as agents of the Indian government and deciding what content was getting blocked and what wasn’t.
However, what is different this time around is the accusation of formal internal practices being followed by Meta that provide certain users almost blanket immunity from censorship, and as The Wire contends, carte blanche in reporting and getting content of other users censored.
What is XCheck? Why should we be concerned?
The existence of XCheck itself is not much of a debate.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal last year, XCheck is a whitelisting process whereby accounts deemed influential and/or important are exempted from Meta’s standard review processes. Due to fear of upsetting these important users, the company provides more leeway while reviewing their content. In fact, instead of going to its standard moderators, these posts are rerouted to special moderators for review.
However, as per internal company documents, less than 10 percent of this XCheck content is actually reviewed. In fact, the leaked internal review went as far as to say, “We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly. … Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”
Given this context, The Wire’s claims are even more troubling as it indicates that these XCheck users have even more power than previously thought.
They are not just provided content review immunity by Meta, but can also indiscriminately get others’ content blocked, according to The Wire report.
The Wire has backed up its report with what it claims to be an internal Instagram report that details how a relatively innocuous post on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath got reported and blocked by Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT Cell, for “nudity”.
— The Wire (@thewire_in) October 10, 2022
Given Facebook’s chequered history with censorship and the lack of transparency of their internal review processes, these are not far-fetched claims.
Further, the recent history between the company and the Indian government has also been a cause for concern, especially given how valuable the Indian market is to the growth prospects of Meta.
Such overreaching powers for state actors such as Amit Malviya seriously disbalances the democratic nature of social media and further reduces the visibility of content that is critical of the government.
For a country already battling the scourge of fake news and propaganda, such powers can almost singlehandedly break critical questioning and journalism.
Claims and counter-claims
This is where things get murkier as we enter the world of claims and counter-claims. In the days since the initial report, Meta has tried to debunk the claims of The Wire by insisting the XCheck programme “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts”.
The Wire hit back with allegations of Meta maintaining a watchlist of journalists and also shared an image of an internal email from Andy Stone (Meta’s policy communications director) asking how the Instagram report got leaked. Meta, in turn, responded by claiming the image was fake.
.@andymstone publicly claimed that @thewire_in story on @amitmalviya and his @Meta XCheck privileges is based on a document that ‘appears to be fabricated’. In an internal email, he asked ‘how the hell’ it was ‘leaked’. With @svaradarajan: https://t.co/LNmZdFyjMk
— Jahnavi Sen (@jahnavi_sen) October 11, 2022
Several questions have been raised on social media regarding the veracity of the “proofs” presented by The Wire. Especially, the purported leaked email by Andy Stone seems quite oddly worded and the evidence presented in it seems strangely convenient.
There is a possibility that The Wire was baited with false leaks regarding the reporting aspect of XCheck users. However, the wider context of the Meta XCheck programme itself, and Meta’s reticence to really open up its policies for public scrutiny merit concern.
There is a really important discussion we need to have about the BJP using the power of the Indian state to pressure US tech platforms… but this ain’t it.
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) October 11, 2022
Wire vs Meta claims: What happens next?
What we can expect to happen next is continuing rounds of allegations and counter-allegations before the story fizzles out with little to no impact on Meta’s actual working practices.
It’s almost unlikely that anything can be firmly proven until Meta completely opens up its internal review processes for an external audit, and that will not happen without the government and/or courts intervening to put pressure on the company.
Given the nature of the allegations and how they favour the ruling dispensation, there is no incentive for them to get involved.
On the other hand, letting the issue go unresolved, or better yet having Meta debunk the claim of The Wire, will give the government and its supporters more ammunition to attack the publication. In fact, it might also make other journalists more wary of pursuing such stories due to the risk of being baited with false leaks.
Given the unlikelihood of a clear resolution in this matter, it is likely this case will form an easy platform to counter any future claims by anyone about government control of social media, thereby making the fight for India’s digital freedom harder still.
(Sidharth Sreekumar (he/him) is an advocate of ethical technological advancement, and is interested in exploring the confluence of technology and societal impact. He is currently a Senior Product Manager at the Economist Intelligence Unit. These are the personal views of the author)