Social media: Users, including police officers, left stranded after Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram shut down

Wednesday, October 6th, 2021 00:00 |
Socialmedia. Graphic/Michael Mosota

Zaddock Angira and Agencies

For more than five hours on Monday, the world got a taste of life without Facebook and its apps.

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger went down for users around the world for more than five hours on Monday in a catastrophic outage that is understood to have been caused by a server update gone wrong.

The outage disrupted the digital lives of social Kenyans, security officers, small-business owners, politicians, aid workers and others.

According to DownDetector, the issues started at around 6.42pm Kenyan time affecting all Facebook and WhatsApp users globally.

NetBlocks, which tracks internet outages and their impact, estimate the outage cost the global economy $160m (£117 million), and sent the Facebook share price down by more than five per cent - $7billion (Sh700 billion) in a matter of hours.

According to an estimate by Fortune, the US-based business magazine, the tech giant lost a total of Sh11 billion in revenues following the six-hour global outage on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus.

The exact cause of the outage has not been confirmed by Facebook, but one expert said the problem may have been caused by an internal error made by staff that effectively erased the site from the internet.

Frequent users

In Kenya, just like other places in the world, frequent users of the platform suffered from anxiety when their communication was cut off, the police force was badly affected, politicians were cut off from their constituents, shopkeepers couldn’t sell their wares and non-profit organisations that use WhatsApp to connect victims of gender-based violence to lifesaving services found their work impaired.

The National Police Service (NPS), which heavily relies on this forum for passing internal information, had to resort to using ordinary short messages (SMS) and calls.

Among the information shared through the instant messaging application include incident reports, operational information, general policing information, missing persons, circulation of wanted persons or vehicles, and sensitive documents among others.

The service has several groups formed on the basis of units, ranks and positions, regions, and even ad hoc groups to pass confidential communication to officers.

The method is also effective bearing in mind that almost all officers use the application from their personal mobile phones.

A senior officer told People Daily the service was largely dependent on WhatsApp due to its wide reach and convenience.

He, however, said the use also posed certain challenges. According to him, potential risks include sharing information on an incorrect group chat, and even disclosing details to the wrong people.

According to the Global Web Index’s 2020 Social media User Trends Report, Kenya has the highest percentage of monthly Whatsapp users compared to the rest of the world, with 97 per cent of internet users who use Whatsapp every month.

Facebook and WhatsApp services have become a public utility, usually cheaper than a phone call and depended upon for much of the communication and commerce of daily life.

Many bereaved families, who had organised a virtual fundraising through WhatsApp to enable them clear medical bills and give their loved ones a better send-off, found themselves stranded.

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger have long been more than handy tools for chatting and sharing photos.

They are critical platforms for doing business, arranging medical care, conducting virtual classes, carrying out political campaigns, responding to emergencies and much more.

However, for some Kenyans the outage may have come as a blessing in disguise as many now had the time to spend and bond with their families and loved ones away from the gadgets.

A section of Kenyans stated that social media had all along been taking most of their time, adding that the outage made them shift their time and attention to other worthy causes such as bonding with family.

Some even prayed that Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of the platforms, allows such outages at regular intervals so that the billions of users across the world can have time with their loved ones, and also engage in other useful undertakings.

“Thanks to Zuckerberg I had a great time with my family, even interacted with kids big time, I didn’t know my wife is such a nice person, though I realised my last born looks and behaves exactly as our caretaker but it is because he spends most of his time with the caretaker.” @Maiyo Lilian:

“Thank you so much Zuckerberg, infact you should do it frequently, remember Jesus is coming soon.” @Engnieer Kuria Waweru.

“It teaches us a lesson that there is life beyond social media. Taking time to ask people how they are doing or spending quality time with your partner, let us all challenge ourselves.

Without social media we can be doing something else.” @Mwarí Wa Wachira

“Yesterday at least we could talk to each other kwa nyumba!!! Haki Zuckerberg wewe thank u for restoring my marriage!” @Joyce Apopa

“Good job Mark. Next time let the problem go for a week at least. We must reform back to our original self.” @Shillahke.

Radio presenter Maina Kageni joined in on the discussion, cheekily suggesting WhatsApp admins, known to wield so much power, had been humbled within the twinkle of an eye.

“To all WhatsAPP admins. I hope you have known and noted how life can change. Please humble yourselves before God,” Kageni shared on his Facebook page.

But while many shared jokes on twitter, others acknowledged the seriousness of the matter.

Tremendous growth

Experts say that e-commerce services, which have registered tremendous growth on the continent during the pandemic, were the most affected.

“Those who received the biggest hit are freelancers and owners of small stores, unlike big stores, which have websites,” Digital Marketing expert Karen Wambugu told the BBC.

WhatsApp is used to send more than 100 billion messages a day and has been downloaded nearly six billion times since 2014, when Facebook bought it, according to estimates from the data firm Sensor Tower.

The update to the servers appears to have paralysed Facebook’s internal systems, which are run on the company’s own network - meaning staff were left unable to communicate with each other and keycards at the company California Headquarters allegedly stopped working. 

Its staff were said to have rushed to data centres to manually reset parts of the system in person, although one insider writing on Reddit claimed online that the firm’s response was hampered by a lack of technicians working in the centres due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The leak also came just hours after former employee whistleblower Frances Haugen went public with how the company puts profits above morals, a day before her scheduled testimony in front of Congress.

During her testimony yesterday, Haugen revealed how the executives have put making profits ahead of any other consideration including posting content harmful to children.

Facebook - which owns the platforms - said on Monday that it had been working to restore access to its services and is “happy to report they are coming back online now”. The company apologised and thanked its users for bearing with it. 

John Graham-Cunningham, the chief technology officer of web security firm CloudFlare, said Facebook made a series of updates to its border gateway protocol (BGP) which caused it to ‘disappear’ from the internet. 

Protocol routes

The BGP allows for the exchange of routing information on the internet and takes people to the websites they want to access.  

Dane Knecht, senior vice president of the firm, said earlier the Facebook Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes had been “withdrawn from the internet”. 

There have been a number of social media outages in recent months, with Instagram going down for 16 hours just last month, and all Facebook platforms going offline in June. 

The cause of the outage remains unconfirmed and it’s unclear if all are linked but not long before Facebook’s entities went down, entries for Facebook and Instagram were removed from the Domain Name System (DNS) it uses. 

According to some news agencies, security experts tracking the situation said the outage could have been triggered by a configuration error, which could be the result of an internal mistake, though sabotage by an insider would be theoretically possible.

An outside hack was viewed as less likely. A massive denial-of-service attack that could overwhelm one of the world’s most popular sites, on the other hand, would require either coordination among powerful criminal groups or a very innovative technique.

Cyber security specialist Jake Moore said there is a ‘chance’ the issue affecting the firms could be related to a cyber attack.

Soon after the first report came through, the hashtag #facebookdown was trending on Twitter, with users worldwide reporting issues connecting. 

The hashtag #instagramisdown and ‘WhatsApp’ were both also trending on Twitter, with a number of users saying they checked their internet connection when they couldn’t get on Facebook. 

Instagram comms tweeted: ‘Instagram and friends are having a little bit of a hard time right now, and you may be having issues using them. Bear with us, we’re on it!’

WhatsApp tweeted: ‘We’re aware that some people are experiencing issues with WhatsApp at the moment.

We’re working to get things back to normal and will send an update here as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience!’

Even Oculus, the virtual reality gaming platform owned by Facebook was having problems, with one user describing their headset as being ‘like a paperweight’.

Oculus tweeted: “We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products.

We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologise for any inconvenience.” 

Every time Facebook and Instagram are down, it draws people to Twitter. 

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey appeared to make light of Facebook’s plight on Monday.

Responding to a post, which appeared to show how the domain is for sale as a result of the outage, he jokingly asked: ‘How much?’

Even Google got in on the action, tweeting: ‘Everyone going to Google to check if Instagram is down.’ 

There were multiple jokes along the same lines, with one showing a fast track race and the caption: “Me and my friends running to twitter to see if fb, whatsapp and insta are down”.

More on News