#18: Don't Choose Tribalism Over Principles
This is where the Wire messed up and Kavita Krishnan didn't
One of the tragic realisations I have had in recent years is that many people who spout principles don’t really care about those principles. They belong to ideological tribes, and the principles are a cover. If their tribe walks away from those principles, which they often only pay lip-service to, so will these people.
Examples abound. Many people who opposed bad governance and supported free markets supported Narendra Modi in 2014. Soon, Modi revealed the extent of his statism, authoritarianism and incompetence, but some of these supporters became useful idiots and continued supporting him. Their principles had a been a fig-leaf: they were tribal.
Similarly, many Republicans supported Donald Trump despite the fact that he stood for the opposite of many of their principles: on free trade and family values, for example. But they had chosen a tribe and they were sticking with it.
This is especially a danger in these times, when social media has made it both convenient and comfortable to join ideological tribes. Once we join them, we are incentivised to raise our status within this group by attacking ‘the other’, and even attacking those in our own groups for not being pure enough. We attack people instead of engaging with arguments. We care about posturing in the virtual world, not the truth in the real world.
This is a natural human tendency. Who doesn’t want to be liked? Who doesn’t want to be retweeted? Where we stand depends on where we sit, right?
This is why I admire Kavita Krishnan. A proud and fearless member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), she quit the party and shocked many fellow travellers when she felt that they were being hypocritical in their support of Russia during this invasion of Ukraine. They were choosing tribalism over principles, and, as she points out here, “there was a need to recognise that really existing or past socialist regimes were and had been terrible totalitarianism, far worse than existing capitalist democracies with all their flaws.”
She has also pointed out their hypocrisy regarding China, and this interview of hers has more. She has also stepped into the creator economy with a YouTube channel and a podcast, and I encourage you to follow them. This is a woman who has chosen principles over tribalism, who is intellectually honest, and who will always question everything and everyone — including herself.
She has also been a guest on The Seen and the Unseen, in a memorable episode that I urge you to check out if you haven’t already.
The Wire digs a hole for itself
In my latest episode with Samarth Bansal, we spend some time chatting about independent media in India today. I would divide them into two categories. There are those who are committed to good journalism and are pursuing it against the odds, such as Alt News and The News Minute. And there are others who are driven by politics, and have picked tribalism over principles. I’d put The Wire in that category.
This was illustrated by Samarth’s outstanding piece on The Wire’s TekFog story earlier this year. It was evident then that the TekFog story was driven by The Wire’s desire to believe the worst about the current government. The story lacked journalistic rigour — and, more importantly, even the desire for it.
The current controversy over their Meta story illustrates that. The Wire began this with the outlandish claim that the BJP’s Amit Malviya had the power to get any post removed from Instagram. This should have failed a sniff test right at the start — how can an individual outside the company have such power? Also, this was not a claim made by Cringe Archivist, whose Instagram posts got taken down. Cringe Archivist had assumed that this was an algorithmic mistake, which it probably was considering that the account was, at the time, private. Malviya wasn’t one of its small set of followers, and the post was taken down within two minutes of its upload. That’s clearly the AI at work.
Here’s where things get messy. Meta pointed out that Wire’s alleged evidence was fabricated. This is where you’d expect The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan to take stock, review the story, figure out if they had indeed been hoaxed. Instead, The Wire doubled down with a report reproducing an alleged email from Andy Stone, Meta’s communications director. Except that it sounded as if it was written by a desi, as Aakar Patel pointed out — and he’s no Modi fanboi. We now know that the email was a forgery.
The Wire then responded with a further piece, which was also full of fabrications. Read this outstanding thread by Pranesh Prakash for the gory details. (Alex Stamos has a good thread on this as well.) Varadarajan had a meltdown around this time, claiming various of their accounts had been hacked, but this tweet by Pranesh is surely the final nail in the coffin. Varadarajan had claimed, in a piece co-bylined by him, that two independent experts had verified the authenticity of the email’s DKIM signature. He revealed one of their identities to Pranesh, who was then told by the expert that he had done no such thing.
(Update: Here is that expert’s tweet thread on how The Wire forged an email from him.)
An editorial failure and a human tragedy
After the first of these stories ran, and it was pointed out that the evidence was fabricated, Varadarajan should have taken a deeper look into the story to find out if they had been taken for a ride. Instead, he doubled and tripled down with more fabrications, one after another, with layers of lies resembling a Matryoshka doll. This turns The Wire from a possible victim to a perpetrator. There is no escaping responsibility, whether for the publication or for him.
My take right now is that Varadarajan was not being malicious, and wasn’t party to the forgeries. But he wanted so badly to believe in the story that he ignored basic journalistic practice. Before the first story ran, he was so keen to get his gotcha moment that Meta was not even contacted for their response. This is contrary to Journalism 101. And then the digging, and the subsequent hole.
I don’t see how his position is tenable now. In any ethical publication, the editor’s head would be the first to roll for this, especially after playing such an active role in the story. I wonder what Varadarajan will do now, and what story he will tell himself to explain what just happened.
As much as this is an editorial failure, it is also a human tragedy.
It wasn’t just The Wire who chose tribalism over principles, by the way. Various people on Twitter argued that The Wire should not be questioned, that they were speaking truth to power, that we should only question Meta. This is such an obnoxious and unprincipled position. The end never justifies the means.
But there were also others like Aakar and Pratik Sinha of Alt News who went by just the facts of the case, and didn’t get swayed by their opposition to the Modi goverment. More power to them.
The elephant in the room
In all this, Meta is still the elephant in the room, and we still need to question them. Why was that Instagram post taken down? What are their moderation policies and how are they implemented in practice? How much do they cater to the political environment in the countries they are in?
These are serious questions, and we debase ourselves when we get into the kind of nonsensical conspiracy theories, with amateurish forgeries, as The Wire just did.
We are approaching an era in which deep fakes will be weaponised in narrative battles by people who actually know how to use tech. To face those challenges, it is important that we are aware of what we want to believe, and watch out for our own biases.
Illlustrations by Simahina.