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The great social media blackout: Why did it happen?6 min read

October 8, 2021 4 min read

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The great social media blackout: Why did it happen?6 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Earlier this week, social media went kaput. Well, most of it at least. Social media sites Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram were not accessible to billions of users for around six hours. This was one of the longest outages for Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Why did this happen? Was it a cyber attack? Was it a technical error? Let’s investigate.

What happened?

Shortly after 9 pm IST on October 4, Facebook’s services including WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus VR went down and did not come up till early morning on Tuesday. The outage affected users across the globe, and according to some reports, even impacted Facebook employees as the company’s internal systems were affected, preventing the staff from accessing internal e-mail clients, etc.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

As of 2021, Facebook is the largest social media platform globally with 2.85 billion monthly active users worldwide. YouTube follows with 2.2 billion, with WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WeChat, all having over a billion users.

Did Facebook figure out what went wrong?

Facebook released a post in which it noted that its engineering teams found that configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between the company’s data centres caused issues that interrupted this communication. “This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centres communicate, bringing our services to a halt,” it added.

This seems a bit complicated and technical — in simple words, Facebook’s machines stopped communicating with each other because of what is called a DNS (domain name system) error.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

DNS is a naming database in which internet domain names are located and translated into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. The domain name system maps the name people use to locate a website to the IP address that a computer uses to locate that website. For example, if someone types “example.com” into a web browser, a server behind the scenes maps that name to the corresponding IP address.

Could this have been a cyberattack?

Facebook says no. It said, “We want to make clear at this time we believe the root cause of this outage was a faulty configuration change. We also have no evidence that user data was compromised as a result of this downtime”.

Even the New York Times spoke anonymously to two Facebook security team members, who said the outage was not likely a result of a cyberattack because the technology behind each of the individual  apps was still different enough that one hack was not likely to affect all of them at once.

Has this happened before?

Yes, the Facebook family of apps suffered a major outage earlier this year in March as well when the services were down for almost 45 minutes. Prior to this, in 2020 alone, four major WhatsApp outages had occurred, of which the biggest one was in January, which had lasted for around three hours. After this, there was one in April, followed by a two-hour outage in July and a brief one in August.

In 2019, Facebook suffered its longest outage ever when the social media service was down for nearly 24 hours.

What is the impact of these outages?

In the past few years, the number of outages have gone up. So, with billions of users, you can imagine the kind of impact something like this could have on people’s lives. Here are some ways in which an outage like this hamper lives:

  • Business affected – A lot of businesses, both big and small, reply on social media for their revenue and to keep in touch with clients and customers. An outage like this can lead to a lot of money lost. Post the pandemic, especially, many businesses have had to move online.
  • Keeping in touch – People use social media to keep in touch with their loved ones in different corners of the world. With travel restrictions amid the pandemic, the need to have communications channels open has become even more essential.
  • Medical services – Covid-19 showed us how the globe was not prepared for such a massive pandemic. Hospitals and individuals keep themselves and others updated via social media to check for medicine availability, oxygen availability, hospital beds, etc.
  • Education – In the digital learning era, schools and teachers have been moving to social media for online classes, assignments, etc.

Can you think of any other ways in which social media
outages can prove costly?

Another controversy

Facebook was already in the middle of another major crisis when the outage happened. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, revealed some internal documents that exposed the company’s awareness of harms caused by its products and decisions.

Haugen had also anonymously filed complaints with law enforcement alleging Facebook’s own research shows how it magnifies hate and misinformation. It also showed that the company was aware that Instagram can harm teenagers’ mental health.


Sources: BBC, Indian Express, NPR

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