Described by some experts as “September 11 of the internet” and by others as “social media doomsday”, a number of the most important social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp which are used by more than three billion people went down last Monday. The incident caused break of communications for hundreds of million users who depend on these platforms across the world. The six-hour outage provoked shocked and sarcastic reactions by followers and experts, particularly that this was the first time three main platforms were completely down for long hours causing the disruption of business and communication of millions of users. Other platforms such as Telegram and Twitter were slowed down in some countries due to high traffic of users who resorted to them after the outage of the major three.
New users in tens of thousands went to download Telegram and Twitter whose original users demanded them to leave in a sarcastic note. Ironically, the Facebook company itself had to post on its Twitter account, “We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
Meantime, sarcasm prevailed across the remaining social media platforms, particularly Twitter, whose users made fun of the crisis of Facebook and its founder Zuckerberg who lost seven billion dollars within a few hours. Tweets and comments have shown the scope of the technological crisis. Some ironic comments mentioned that the Facebook billionaire founder has forgotten to renew the internet subscription so the service was suspended. Other people felt its joyful to have an opportunity for real communication with family and friends away from the virtual world imposed by technology, while others wished the outage would last for long to repair the detachment caused by social media and the lack of real communication and social duties among families and even members of one family.
“FAULTY CONFIGURATION CHANGE”
Facebook company announced that the reason behind the outage was a “faulty configuration change” that prevented 3.5 billion users from accessing their account on the three applications. The announcement was made after the platforms were back online amid speculations about possible fall of other platforms, reports of a young Chinese hacker being behind the incident, and conspiracies against the United States by major countries such as China and Russia, in addition to anticipation of another fall of technology and internet applications.
Following the outage, Facebook stocks declined by 5.63% according to Market Watch website which reports news of stock markets. According to the website, the stock fall was the worst to take place in one day, as the stock price fell to $323 by about $20.
CRITICISM AT THE SENATE
Francis Haugen, a former employee and product manager in Facebook, harshly criticized the company in her testimony before the Senate subcommittee of consumer protection just a day after the outage. She said that the company’s platforms harm children, foster discord and weaken U.S. democracy, calling for enforcement of legislative actions to regulate the company’s performance.
Facebook reacted to Haugen’s accusations by issuing a statement that doubted Haugen’s knowledge of the issues she raised as she “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives,” the statement said. The company also said it didn’t agree with her “characterization of the many issues she testifies about.”
Meantime, the ex-employee’s criticism has led the company to suspend its Instagram kid’s development. In a rare bipartisan consensus, Republican and Democratic Senators emphasized the company’s need to change.
These developments started to unfold after the appearance of Frances Haugen on the “60 Minutes” program in which she revealed herself as the source of Facebook internal documents sent to the Congress, Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. She asserted that she wants to fix the company and not harm it. The documents and ensuing reports published by Wall Street Journal (WSJ) motivated the Senate hearing set for Frances to testify about the violations committed by the company.
In her testimony, Haugen said, “Facebook repeatedly encounters conflicts between its own profit and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits. She also added that “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable.” She pointed to Mark Zuckerberg’s control of the company and his interest in users’ engagement, saying this had a big negative impact on the company’s decisions.
A number of Congressmen criticized Zuckerberg, while Senator Richard Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee which held the hearing, called on Mr. Zuckerberg to appear before Congress to testify, describing the company as “morally bankrupt”.
In mid-September, WSJ started to publish a series of shocking reports based on documents obtained by an unnamed whistleblower inside Facebook, who appeared later to be Frances Haugen. The reports included internal communication that revealed Facebook practices which jeopardize the safety and the well-being of its users. The WSJ investigative reporting highlighted a huge contradiction between the company’s declared principles and values, and its real practices.
The paper said that although Zuckerberg publicly said that his company enable its users “to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture and journalism” and that the company’s standards apply to them all regardless of who they are, it was revealed that the facts on the ground are in contrast to what he said. The leaked documents disclosed a system that exempts famous politicians, journalist, athletes from applied standards. Limited number of users are “whitelisted” which means they are immune from the platform’s punishments applied to ordinary users. One such example is Neymar, the Paris Saint German’s Brazilian footballer, who was allowed to post defaming photos of the woman who accused him of rape in 2019 and prevented moderators from deleting them for 24 hours. Investigations revealed that Facebook doesn’t comply with its public standards when it comes to celebrities who violate without any punishment.
Leaked internal communication about another major issue uncovered the company’s mismanagement of studies conducted by its researchers on the negative impact of Instagram on young girls. In the results published on the company’s internal message board, the researchers revealed that “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Comparisons triggered by using the photo-sharing application have changed how these girls view themselves, reported WSJ citing the unclassified documents.
The researchers noted that the platform which appeals to an increasing number of teens is one reason behind rising rates of anxiety and depression among young people, some of whom started to report suicidal thoughts as a result.
However, the company continued to play down in public the harm its platform causes and didn’t make available the research results to the public, academics or legislators. Even last March, Zuckerberg testified to a congress hearing that using social media apps has a positive impact on mental health.
ALARMING CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES
The WSJ reports named “Facebook Files” which included dozens of documents that indicated warnings reported by the company’s employees that some criminal groups use their platform especially in some developing countries. Criminal activities such as recruiting by drug cartels, human trafficking and organ selling in addition to pornography and inciting violence against some ethnicities were detected in countries where a large base of users was growing.
The employees’ warnings received no reaction from their superiors in order to control these abuses. Although some of these pages were removed, no further action was taken to prevent the issue that allowed their appearance on the company’s various platforms in the first place.
Another internal communication obtained by WSJ highlighted another negative impact of the content shared by COVID-19 anti-vaxxers which contributed to more hesitancy among citizens and circulated false information about vaccines.
OUTAGE IS AN INTERNAL ISSUE
“An internal issue in the three platforms has probably caused the outage,” Dr. Osama Mustafa, an expert of Information Systems and Technology, told Majalla. “When platforms undergo an update, back-up servers are used, but the sudden fall of all these platforms at one time means that some internal problem took place. They commented that it was a DNS issue, which operated Facebook domain. But oddly, all other websites fell down too. They confirm that the issue was with the configuration which is not logic.”
The technology expert explained that the company talked about integrating a number of its platforms into one. They tried but failed in doing so with Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp which use three different servers.”
He added, “It is supposed that in case any server falls, the other two will remain online. But it seems another internal issue took place.”
Commenting on the risks posed to users’ data, the possibility that hackers targeted the platforms, and hinting at cyberattacks by some countries, Dr Mustafa said, “The incident has nothing to do with users’ data, and I rule out the possibility of hacking attack. No hacker can target three servers no matter their skillfulness; they could only hack some data sections, but not all of them. In case it was hacked, the website would not go completely down, let alone all three. The fault is inside the company.”
Speaking to Majalla from Washington DC, political writer and analyst Basem Abu Sumaya said, “It is premature to confirm or deny accusations in the Facebook crisis. But for a long time social media companies including Facebook have been under fire for selling its users’ information for other parties, which might include security agencies.”
He went on, “Every time accusations were reported, nothing happened, and people have been moving forward with using these platforms and applications more than ever. They even used them in organizing protests and revolutions as in the Arab world and in the United States. After the U.S. presidential elections, which millions of pro-Trump Americans believe were rigged, social media platforms, mainly Facebook and Twitter played a major role in inciting the violence that took place at the Capitol Hill.”
Abu Sumaya also told Majalla that the Senate subcommittee listened to Haugen’s testimony about the company’s manipulation of content that it knew was harmful for its young users. “If we trace the protection of these platforms, we can find that they have been vulnerable to violations, hacking, breaches and even outages.”
“The recent incident was not the first to have a fundamental part of peoples’ lives going down. They depend on them in their daily personal life, businesses and jobs.”
The U.S.-based expert remarked, “The huge losses arising from the social media outage have negatively affected world economy, including the American economy which is already in disarray. Some Americans don’t believe the conspiracy possibility, but are concerned with the massive impact of these losses on the market.”
“Frances Haugen is cooperating with the Senate subcommittee of commerce in part of the Congress efforts to review potential regulations of the platform,” he added, citing the Facebook ex-employee’s testimony that the company has deliberately ignored evidence on its harmful effect on users for the sake of profits.
“She said the company found that if it changes algorithms to be safer for the users, they will spend less time on the platform which means less advertisements.”
As for leaks of users’ data, Abu Sumaya said, “Users data have been always vulnerable to hacking whether on Facebook, other social media websites, Google, Yahoo and others. There’s no means of technology that is 100% immune to breaches or hacking despite the daily breakthroughs.”
Agreeing that the outage was due to technical fault rather than a breach, Information system consultant Mahdi Afifi told Majalla that “For the first time in history the three platforms went done simultaneously for a long time. One server went out, and because employees work remotely, they were not able to find a quick solution for the dysfunction. The outage has nothing to do with hackers.”
The Washington-based expert added that “Facebook is mainly concerned with profits – its net profits amount to 40 million dollars – but doesn’t care for social benefits.”
He pointed out, “The U.S. Congress is discussing a bill and holding investigations into the Facebook crisis. Republicans and Democrats have agreed on issuing a bill that regulate and adjust the company’s actions, which is welcomed by the White House.
“About 10.2 million complaints were filed by users against Facebook and Instagram within seven hours. Those affected will be remunerated for the damages they suffered.”