Facebook is as essential as gas and electricity for some, study claims

Outage outrage! Fury when Facebook goes down proves that social media is now as essential as gas and electricity for many people, study claims

  • In October 2021, Faebook and its other platforms went down globally
  • Researchers analysed 223,815 tweets during the outage with #facebookdown
  • They found 10 key topics including complaints, mockery and business impact
  • Based on the findings, the researchers suggest social media platforms should look at outages as seriously as utility companies

On October 4 last year, Facebook and its other platforms including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger went down globally for close to six hours.

Thousands of disgruntled users took to Twitter to vent their frustrations, with one user claiming the outage had ‘ruined’ their day. 

Now, a new study claims that the fury when Facebook goes down proves that social media has become as essential as gas and electricity for many people.

A new study claims that the fury when Facebook goes down proves that social media has become as essential as gas and electricity for many people (stock image)

Why did Facebook go down in October 2021? 

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were all brought down for almost seven hours in October 2021, in a massive global outage.

Problems began at around 16:45 BST (11:45 ET), leaving users unable to access the three platforms, as well as Facebook Messenger and Oculus, for the rest of the evening. 

Facebook, which owns all the services, blamed the outage on a bungled server update and insisted it was not an attack from outside the company.

The US tech giant said the problem was caused by a faulty update that was sent to its core servers, which effectively disconnected them from the internet. 

Researchers from Penn State University analysed 223,815 tweets following the October Facebook outage that used the hashtag #facebookdown.

‘Most media effects research is about showing people media and seeing how they react, but in this study we see that removing media can actually be more informative,’ said Shyam Sundar, co-author of the study.

‘This kind of outage provides us an opportunity to see how people reflect on their access to social media, and what we see is that social media has become so important that it’s almost a utility.’

After removing duplicate tweets, the researchers used a statistical model that allowed them to identify the 10 key topics that emerged from the data on the tweets.

The topics included: complaints, mockery, media reporting, social media detox, log-in desperation, lessons on over-reliance, business impact, problem-solving, personal and professional impact, and social media alternatives.

The analysis revealed that 29,000 tweets following the Facebook outage expressed a desire to find another form of social media.

This suggests that users may not be loyal to one site compared to other, according to Mengqi Liao, first author of the study.

‘What we saw was that as the outage continued, the tweets that talked about the desire to find other social media outlets began to increase,’ Ms Liao.

‘In fact, finding new social media sites was the only topic to steadily increase as time went on during the six-hour outage.’

Meanwhile 35,371 tweets mentioned taking a ‘social media detox’.

‘Beyond the users’ mockery and their descriptions of their desperate efforts to log on, we think it’s interesting that some people were also asking and talking about social media detox, which ranked No. 4 among all the topics,’ Ms Liao added.

While some users simply use social media apps for fun, the researchers highlight that many people now rely on the platforms for their livelihood.

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were all brought down for almost seven hours in October 2021, in a massive global outage

While some users simply use social media apps for fun, many people now rely on the platforms for their livelihood

‘It is not simply that people are dependent on it at a social level,’ Professor Sundar said. ‘When these social media sites go down, businesses also will go down.

‘A lot of people engage in business transactions on the whole family of Facebook apps, such as WhatsApp and Instagram.

‘There are newspapers that run completely on Facebook and small businesses and entrepreneurs who have their businesses, like yoga classes that hold lessons through Facebook.

‘So, for some people, it’s a utility because it’s critical to their livelihood.’

Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that social media platforms should look at outages as seriously as utility companies and have plans in place, should they go down again.

‘This study throws light on the fact that social media leaders need to better prepare their companies to face outages and they also have to better prepare their users for possible outages,’ Professor Sundar concluded.

‘Right now, it doesn’t seem like preparing for outages is even part of their design plan.’

WHAT ARE THE MAIN THEORIES FOR WHY THE INTERNET KEEPS BREAKING? 

Human error

People often assume any kind of web disruption is linked to hacking, but actually more mundane reasons such as human error tend to be the more likely cause, experts say.

IT employees for companies, tech giants and even supermarkets make mistakes, which one cyber security expert blamed on them being ‘under pressure’ and having to take shortcuts.

Meta’s outage on October 4 was ultimately blamed on user error, when a faulty update disconnected its servers from the internet.

Hacking

There have been increases in the sophistication of hacking, experts say, with numerous Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks seen recently, including on Microsoft, Google and other massive companies.

DDoS attacks work by flooding a victim’s system with ‘internet traffic’ in an attempt to overload it and force it offline.

Meanwhile, ransomware — a form of cyberattack which locks files and data on a user’s computer and demands payment in order for them to be released back to the owner — is also on the rise.

The head of Britain’s cybersecurity agency said it was ‘the most immediate danger’ of all cyber threats faced by the UK, and businesses need to do more to protect themselves.

Too much traffic

One cyber security expert told MailOnline that tech giants and other businesses had been hit by an unexpected surge in traffic because of the Covid pandemic, putting strain on their infrastructure.

He said these ‘sheer numbers of more online users and traffic’ was causing a lot of the outages. 

Centralised systems

Many companies, including Meta, have centralised back-end systems which means there is a single point of failure.

It Meta’s case, this means it can affect Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, as is what happened last month.

An internet scientist has agreed that centralised systems are a problem, while another expert said Meta’s outage showed the advantage of having a ‘more reliable’ decentralised system that doesn’t put ‘all the eggs in one basket’. 

Ageing web infrastructure

Having been born in 1989, the World Wide Web is now an ‘ageing infrastructure’, according to several experts.

And with the increase in traffic and volume of users on the internet, systems are coming under more and more pressure.

‘Businesses must test their infrastructure and have multiple failsafes in place,’ one expert warned.

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