Today, millions of people were idly scrolling Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp when things suddenly went very wrong. First, pages weren’t refreshing. Pictures weren’t loading. Before long, it became clear that accounts weren’t working right. But was it just you, or was it affecting everyone? You could ask your friends on Messenger – except that was down too.
Millions of users suddenly found themselves dumped out of their favorite social media apps with no warning, and for hours. So what happened? A whistleblower that leveled alarming accusations at Facebook last month revealed her identity just a day ago and the internet has questions. Were the two incidents related?
Facebook and Instagram Go Down
Just before noon today, some of the biggest social media sites on the internet suddenly went dark. At first, people thought it may have been a local issue. Then maybe it was a regional issue. But before long, it became obvious that the outages were happening worldwide. Twitter slowed as people flocked to the platform looking for information and social exchange. Some cracked jokes, others worried – but no one really seemed to know what was going on. Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey acknowledged the absurdity of the moment with a Tweet reading, “hello literally everyone”.
On Twitter, theories abounded that included DNS attacks from hackers, and suggesting that Facebook employees were locked out of their work buildings because the keycards weren’t working anymore, hinting at a far more widespread problem. But was it hackers, or someone on the inside making waves?
Is a Whistleblower at the Heart of the Outage?
One popular theory is that the outage was linked to the revealing interview whistleblower Frances Haugen gave to 60 Minutes just the day before. In the interview, Haugen excoriated Facebook and its algorithm. The former Facebook employee claims that although the founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t set out to create a hostile platform, the profit-centric algorithm causes great harm. According to Haugen, the algorithm only prioritizes engagement and doesn’t screen that engagement for misinformation or hateful content. So as people engage with more dishonest and inciteful content, they’re fed even more because the algorithm picks up on their preference.
From a business standpoint, it make sense. They make money the more people engage. But at what cost? Haugen doesn’t want people to hate Facebook, but she wants to make people aware of how far they’re falling short of their promise to tackle online violence and misinformation. After the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, a national dialogue has arisen about the responsibility companies have to the content on their websites. While you can’t hold a website accountable for user comments, there may be some responsibility to screen out the ones that are an imminent threat of harm. Facebook claims to already be doing that, but according to Haugen, they’re nowhere near effective enough.
So on the heels of such a damning interview, is there some correlation? The internet has suggested that Facebook brought it down to hide something. It’s a fun theory but there’s not much substance to it. What exactly would Facebook be able to remove in just 6 hours of outage that would exonerate them from what Haugen accused the company of? The answer is: not a whole lot. So there may be something to the suggestion that it was an inside job, it’s likely not related to Haugen’s interview.
The Cost of Social Media Outages
The reason that it’s likely not related to the whistleblower is simple – cost. Washington Examiner reports, “Issues affecting the social media giant led to a major stock sell-off on Monday. Facebook’s stock dropped 4.9% throughout the day, translating to a $7 billion loss for Zuckerberg, according to Bloomberg.
It also knocked him down a spot in the world’s richest list, behind Microsoft founder Bill Gates. His net worth currently stands at $121.6 billion, down from over $140 billion a few weeks ago.”
That’s a staggering shift of fortunes in a very short amount of time. And past outages have cost hundreds of millions. But the cost goes beyond money. Many countries’ citizens rely on Facebook to communicate. In places where communication infrastructure is haphazard or governments are poorly centralized, people use peer to peer networks to communicate about important issues. In the United States, it’s an option but not necessarily the only one. However in places like Afghanistan, working around the Taliban requires social media and Facebook is both well-established and easy to navigate, making it a preferred center for many users around the world looking for communication options.
People spoke with Nic McKinley, founder of a non-profit aimed at fighting human trafficking. Per People it is a major concern when Facebook goes down because it makes vulnerable people already in fraught situations; “‘They’re not free to download Signal or other comparable apps. So now their communications are completely exposed to their governments,’ he told PEOPLE. Signal is a messaging platform that allows for secure communications with end-to-end encryption for groups and individuals.
Not having access to a secure messaging platform doesn’t only impact dissidents, or those who might be trying to hide their communications from the government, McKinley added.
‘If you’re a regular person who is trying to figure out what the best price for your goats are, you are impacted,’ he said. ‘The world has really taken technologies for granted, so most likely they don’t have a backup for that group on WhatsApp that crowdsources the best goat prices at different markets. That now isn’t available, so that person needs to take the risk for going to the wrong market.'”
On Tuesday, Haugen will go before Congress to testify about the information she released concerning Facebook’s safety. Per HuffPost via Yahoo!, “‘The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people,’ Haugen will testify. ‘Congressional action is needed.’”
Haugen does not appear to have held back thus far, it will be interesting to see what she might say in front of Congress.