Estherina Bewintara, a 29-year-old mother and designer in Jakarta, normally processes orders for her online furniture shop once her baby is asleep, typically between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. But on Monday night, as she was coordinating a stock update over a WhatsApp call, she noticed something was wrong.
“I thought it was the Wi-Fi,” she said. She attempted to reconnect multiple times, got frustrated, and eventually abandoned the work. “I went to sleep upset.”
Bewintara is one of the 2.85 billion users of Facebook.com, WhatsApp, and Instagram who were left in the dark by a router update gone awry, which took down Facebook’s entire network of platforms this week.
For much of the world, the outage struck in the middle of the night. In Indonesia, which has over 190 million Facebook and 88 million Instagram users, the outage occurred at around 10:30 p.m. Had it struck just a few hours earlier, it would have meant communication chaos.
Facebook’s products are more than just a social network for hundreds of millions of people globally. Beyond being communication tools, the company’s platforms are e-commerce resources, storefronts, and health and emergency aids. In some regions, Facebook is the internet. Seven users from around the world described the impact of the seven-hour shortage to Rest of World, and a user from Nigeria said, “It’s painful.”
Facebook’s reach and dominance in much of the world is largely by design. As part of its strategy for exponential growth, the company has made internet access in the Global South — through the use of Facebook products — a priority.
In 2015, the company launched Free Basics, which gave users access to Facebook products for free or reduced their cost through partnerships with telecommunications companies. The program expanded and, in 2020, went on to include Discover, which allows users to access a text-only version of Facebook.
Yet, critics have called the initiative a form of “digital colonialism.”
“In Western countries, a lot of people who experience the internet for the first time don’t come on the internet through Facebook,” said Kofi Yeboah, an editor at the website Global Voices and a Digital Inclusion fellow at the nonprofit Paradigm, based in Ghana. “They have several other options — Google or even an educational platform. But here, the first entrance into the internet world is through Facebook.”
So when Facebook goes out, for much of the world, so does the internet.
When Facebook’s products first went out across Ghana, many believed it was a telecomm failure. The companies received so many complaints that one, MTN, was compelled to tweet that Facebook was the source of the outage. Vodafone sent its customers a text to alert them.
Many small, informal businesses in Ghana have come to rely on Facebook to sell their products and would likely have been affected by the outage, Yeboah said.
“If I am a seller, if I advertise on Jumia [an e-commerce startup], I am paying 50% higher than what I would pay [to sell] on Facebook,” he said. “There, I don’t need to pay anything — just my data.”
In 2020, WhatsApp claimed that 50 million commercial enterprises used its business app around the world. That includes people like Cayetano Llovell Curia, an interior designer and architect in Argentina, who sells his custom products exclusively through WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.
“I don’t have an online shop or even a brick shop, so I was really scared,” he told Rest of World. In an Instagram post shared once service was restored, Curia said he will be looking at backup platforms, including creating an independent website, so his customers can reach him in case of a future outage.
“Social media is not just a platform for people to boost our ego when we go out looking nice …” he wrote in Spanish. “It’s the way many entrepreneurs and professionals meet and communicate with our clients.”
The WhatsApp outage in particular had grave ramifications beyond commercial interests.
Dar al-Ifta, an Egyptian Islamic advisory that has been offering guidance to Muslims around the world for over a century, announced that it would begin issuing fatwas on TikTok because Facebook and WhatsApp were unavailable. In Brazil, WhatsApp groups function as grassroots public safety alerts; in India, the chat app is a way for police to document harassment; and teachers in Lebanon and around the world have relied on the platform to communicate with students during the pandemic.
For 30-year-old Nurma Dian Rahmawati in Indonesia, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have become indispensable for communicating with her mother, who is a migrant worker living in Hong Kong. The apps are affordable and easy to access. Rahmawati calls her mother daily, a few times a day, ever since the services became available in Indonesia almost a decade ago.
When the services went down, Rahmawati was sick. “My mother panicked because she couldn’t monitor my condition,” she said. A family member had died from Covid-19 the previous month, which added to her mother’s anxiety, according to Rahmawati.
And in some cases, communication through Facebook’s products can be a matter of life and death. One U.S.-based user, who asked not to be identified because they are helping with continued evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, told Rest of World that “WhatsApp crashing was terrifying.”
Despite the grave and widespread consequences of the Facebook outage, the popularity and penetration of its products leave few options for users to decamp to on short notice. “In Mexico, 90% of people use WhatsApp,” said Edyta Norejko, a real estate agent based in Mexico City, who said she lost a day of business, thanks to the outage. “Even if I want to move, there’s no other place to go.”