The day Facebook went dark

October 10, 2021

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram were inaccessible for hours. A look at what happened, and why the problem is bigger than a social media platform

The day Facebook went dark

When WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook went dark for more than five hours, in what is being called the biggest outage for the social media giant, many experienced schadenfreude, others relief. At the same time, a Facebook whistleblower was speaking out against the platform’s complicity in proliferating divisive and toxic content – no one feigned surprise. These responses are emblematic of the times we are living in, one where there is increasing consensus that there is something awry about the social media platforms that govern our lives.

According to Facebook, the outage was triggered during maintenance of “the system that manages [the] global backbone network capacity” which means the nerve centre that connects Facebook’s various data centres. Maintenance commands such as these are routine and any errors are detected by the audit tool. However, this time the audit tool failed to detect the error resulting in a domino effect of shutdowns across the platform. When the data centres went offline, DNS servers, essentially the addresses through which the rest of the internet accesses Facebook, were unreachable. These details are important to understand because while almost everyone reading this article uses at least one of Facebook’s platforms every day, they are likely to have very little understanding of the infrastructure underpinning it.

The outage brought into stark relief our collective dependency on big tech for every aspect of our lives. The irony of many people turning to another social media platform, Twitter, during the outage is further proof of this dependency. We were not able to contact our loved ones because WhatsApp wasn’t sending or receiving messages. Office group chats went blank. Small businesses who depend on these platforms to conduct transactions and carry out orders were virtually left in the dark. This is particularly significant as Facebook has been pivoting in recent years to cater to business and economic transactions on its platforms with products such as Facebook Marketplace. It was akin to the most important road in the city being inaccessible.

No matter how much we try to disentangle ourselves from these platforms, our dependency on them is undeniable especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. This dependency shouldn’t be realised simply in cases like this, but also in the fact that social media platforms have a disproportionate power to determine what they allow on their platform. The concentration of content moderation in the hands of private companies, who in turn rely on a combination of machine learning and a shrinking number of human moderators, means that any of the businesses relying on the platform can be booted off it if they are flagged as violating its policies. Over the years, there have been a growing number of “false positives”, where an algorithm has incorrectly removed content, with little transparency or chance of appeal. The larger issues of the centralisation of the internet both in terms of its infrastructure and decision-making power have left us at the mercy of a handful of companies.

The outage brought into stark relief our collective dependency on big tech for every aspect of our lives.

The over-reliance on Facebook and its “family” of apps is also a result of unchecked consolidation by big tech to acquire emerging and smaller platforms. Facebook didn’t invent its two most lucrative platforms, Instagram and WhatsApp; they were acquired when the company sought to aggressively expand and subsume all competitors in its ambit. Many have called for the breaking up of these platforms through anti-trust laws, calling them ‘too big to function’. However, recent efforts through the US courts to litigate against Google and Facebook have not been encouraging. The Federal Trade Commission is currently looking into anti-competitive practices of Amazon and Apple as well. The proposed Digital Markets Act in the EU is another attempt at chipping away at this power.

For unfortunate reasons, users in Pakistan might have felt at home during the outage. In a country where internet blockages and platform bans are common, the federal government through its powers under Section 54(3) of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority Act, 1996, can decide to shut down mobile and internet services in “situations of emergency”, a term that has been interpreted widely. Furthermore, many content creators would have found themselves in a familiar situation where they have been forced to diversify the apps they rely on after the continuous banning and unbanning of platforms like TikTok.

The last five years have accelerated the conversation around the power of big tech and regulation, however in other ways the conversation has not moved fast enough. Facebook’s early philosophy of “move fast and break things” has broken society in fundamental ways, and it seems, it is also breaking its own platform. However, it is important to remember that the problem is bigger than Facebook, or any one platform; the lack of accountability, transparency and imbalance of power is not simply a flaw, it is an inherent feature of the business model and mode of engaging with end users. It would be idealistic to envision a complete break from big tech.However, if this outage has taught us anything, we can learn to depend on them less.

Shmyla Khan is the director of policy and research at Digital RightsFoundation   

The day Facebook went dark