One constant throughout the original nine seasons of “The X-Files”, a globally syndicated American television show about a pair of fbi special agents assigned to weird cases, is a poster in the background. Mounted on a wall in the agents’ dingy basement office, it shows a grainy picture of a flying saucer and is emblazoned with a slogan in large sans-serif letters: “i want to believe”. This sentiment ultimately (two-decade-old spoiler alert!) helps the agents uncover a massive conspiracy involving the government and a technologically superior society capable of magical feats (in this case, space aliens).
A similar urge appears to have driven editors at the Wire, an independent Indian news website. Earlier this month, it published a story alleging a massive conspiracy involving the government and a technologically superior society capable of magical feats (in this case, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp).
The short version of a very long saga goes something like this. On October 10th the Wire alleged that Meta had handed awesome powers to Amit Malviya, who oversees social media for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp). So extensive were his privileges that his posts on Instagram were immune to review by content moderators, it said. What’s more, he had the ability to flag posts from other accounts as objectionable, which would be instantly removed without question. It published what it said were internal Instagram reports to support its claims.
It was earth-shattering stuff. Meta’s communications chief, Andy Stone, denied the claims on Twitter. But his employer has the rare distinction of being considered untrustworthy even when it denies something flat out, so few observers were willing to take him at his word. The Wire certainly did not: the next day it published what it claimed was a leaked email written by Mr Stone himself, thus proving its allegations as well as providing evidence of a botched cover-up. “How the hell [this internal report] got leaked?” it read. “Who is the reporter, not on our watch list, and why didn’t anyone of you bother to link me up?”
Ignore for a moment the ropey English in an email supposedly written by an American. Even with Meta’s reputation, it was hard to dismiss its next move as mere obfuscation. The company published a lengthy statement refuting the claims in the strongest possible terms. “There is no such report…There are no such emails.”
Still, the Wire soldiered on. On October 15th it published “proof” that the email was real, relying on cryptographic checks and verification of its methods from two independent analysts (both of whom later said they had not verified anything). After a barrage of criticism, the Wire retracted the stories on October 23rd. It also pulled an earlier investigation alleging that the bjp had created a super-app that automated the creation and deletion of social-media accounts to spew hate at scale. On October 27th its editors at last issued an apology, admitting they rushed publication without proper technical vetting or adequate editorial checks.
Three lessons flow from this miserable affair. First is the stupidity of choosing partisanship over process. Wanting to believe is a fine quality in a pilgrim but a lousy one for holding power to account. Indeed, the result is the exact opposite of what the Wire had intended. Meta has avoided fresh scrutiny over its relationship with the bjp or the special privileges it may grant powerful figures. The bjp, for its part, has remained silent, but no doubt rejoiced as one the country’s few remaining outlets for critical journalism shattered its own credibility. A willingness to listen to critics might have helped the Wire spot its mistakes earlier.
A second lesson is that technology in general and social media in particular, while powerful, are not capable of magic. This is a lesson liberals have refused to learn ever since Britain voted for Brexit and America for Donald Trump. So badly did they want to believe in the abilities of Cambridge Analytica, or of the Russian state, or the maleficence of their political foes, or in the conspiracies that joined these elements together, that they failed to accept reality.
Above all is the lesson that misinformation is generated by all sides—and that it is often done in good faith. Journalists are told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” In an era when everything is political and anybody with a smartphone can broadcast news, scepticism is more important than ever. It is time to update the maxim. “If your enemy tells you he’s evil, check it out.”