As these investigations begin, we should think of the 4 October global outage as a warning of the dangers that come with piling the lifelines and livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people into a single behemoth.
In 2019, amid heated debates in the west concerning the proliferation of disinformation and mental health issues stemming from social media, I witnessed a more hopeful side of Facebook’s promise to connect the world. I spent two months in Matamoros, Mexico, organising Project Lifeline’s telemedicine and remote legal assistance project for Central American asylum-seekers stranded in a sprawling border encampment by the migrant protection protocols.
There, WhatsApp became a portal for people trapped in the camp to access lifesaving medical care and legal aid. The lengthy queues of people waiting to charge their phones snaked out of every restaurant and convenience store, testament to the indispensable role of social media in a refugee camp. For hundreds of millions of people outside Matamoros, WhatsApp is much more than a messaging platform: it is their main avenue for generating income and seeking government and emergency services where there is at least limited, free internet connection and where mobile phone services have yet to arrive or remains prohibitively expensive.
But when Facebook’s servers crashed on 4 October, it became clear that those bright spots hid grave pitfalls. The cacophony of ringtones that usually echo throughout the sprawling urban encampment in Matamoros went silent as hundreds of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean, and the aid workers helping them, scrambled to contact immigration lawyers and medical services located on the other side of the US-Mexico border without being able to use WhatsApp. “We couldn’t do our jobs to communicate with asylum seekers or professionals on the ground,” said Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration attorney leading efforts to provide pro bono legal assistance to asylum-seekers. “We have a woman who has cancer and we had to wait all day to see when we could speak to her and receive her medical documents.”
More than 8,000 miles away in Sindh, Pakistan, WhatsApp is a critical tool of commerce, especially for poverty-stricken rural villages that rely on very thin margins from livestock sales. Deep in the difficult-to-traverse Thar desert, connectivity is a precious rarity. Every day, one or two villagers travel for more than an hour to special wifi hotspots, armed with the single phone in the village and responsible for the communication and business needs of the community. There, they contact urban livestock buyers over WhatsApp and earn the entire village’s income for the day. “Those trips decide what the village will earn and eat for that day,” said Fariel Salahuddin, an entrepreneur in Karachi who founded Goats for Water, a startup in Pakistan that uses WhatsApp to facilitate commerce for smallholder livestock farmers in off-grid and drought-stricken villages in Pakistan. “If they arrive and the servers are down, even for a few hours, that would be an incredible setback for the community.”
“Luckily for us, the outage started at 9pm and went into the early hours of the morning,” Salahuddin said. “Had this happened during the day, it would have significantly held up work and been a massive crisis for many smallholder communities throughout Pakistan and the region.”
With so many lives dependent upon a functional messaging service, the Facebook outage reveals the need for a different path forward. The present challenge demonstrates the need for government and socially vital parts of the economy to encourage businesses to spread their operations across multiple platforms in order to cushion the economic shock of another outage. In light of the outage and existing concerns about Facebook’s ethics on privacy, momentum is building to encourage WhatsApp users to switch to Signal or Telegram. But the widespread penetration of WhatsApp has created significant cultural stickiness and inertia, impeding en masse migrations to competitors. Phone memory is scarce in many rural and off-grid communities, and deleting WhatsApp for another app often also means abandoning connections to friends and extended family who might be less inclined to switch platforms.
Facebook’s ceaseless pursuit of competitive control has brought us to this point. According to reports, Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for $19bn in 2014 was the culmination of months of obsessive data collection and tracking. Facebook executives feared that WhatsApp posed a serious competitive threat to Facebook as it was heavily outpacing Facebook’s own Messenger.
While it is up to the ongoing investigations to decide whether Facebook can truly be classified as a monopoly, the social media giant is playing a dangerous game in its continued attempts to entrench its overwhelming dominance in the mobile messaging space. Either by accident or through the actions of a malevolent actor, a more prolonged outage is inevitable in the future. And when it hits, millions of lives will be brought down alongside those servers.