Making Social Media a Safe Space – The Organization for World Peace
When social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were shut down for several hours, the whole world was affected in several ways. It wasn’t just your daily dose of entertainment that was affected. There are people whose businesses rely on their Facebook presence and others who have been called for jobs on WhatsApp and panic. Our reliance on social media is not new. That major outage, followed by another minor one, brought back some concerns about the impact social media has on our daily lives and the damage that a certain type of monopoly can cause.
Why did this failure occur? There is a lengthy technical explanation that has been written about in several news outlets. It all boils down to Facebook accidentally deleting or temporarily disconnecting its own path in order to reach itself and everything that Facebook operates. This meant that if you tried to reach Facebook you couldn’t because the path was gone. Since Facebook owns and operates all of its internal systems from one location, it has essentially blocked access to itself. The employees could not access their workstations either, as they could neither get into their office nor log into their systems. Facebook avoided going into detail, so most of the information is based on what may have happened. There’s no clear explanation of how the issue was resolved, other than a report that says they sent employees to their California servers to manually fix the issue.
This failure may have been a minor inconvenience and a funny story for some of us. But it had a wider impact, particularly in the Global South. In many countries, Facebook is the main way to connect people for free. When the Indian government decided in 2019 to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a union territory, all residents’ internet connections were cut off for months. There was a great outcry over how this affected people and their lives as a result of this “unjust” government action. Many companies were affected, which drove people into poverty. Students lost access to essential study materials and some were unable to register for important exams. People could not reach their friends and family inside and outside the province. The government managed to silence the voices of anyone who might be against the policy.
With the recent outage, the whole world had to experience this loss of connection. An article by Global Citizen took a detailed look at the countries affected by the outage. According to data from Mobilesquared, an industry research group, WhatsApp has the highest number of users in India, with 400 million, followed by Brazil and Indonesia. Many small businesses in developed and developing countries use WhatsApp and Instagram for their sales, and many of these companies have suffered huge losses as a result. During the pandemic, the number of small and medium-sized businesses that rely on social media has increased.
Another aspect highlighted by Global Citizen was the impact on humanitarian work in areas such as Syria and Afghanistan. Locals and aid workers in these countries rely heavily on WhatsApp communications about bombings and other threats critical to their movement in conflict areas. Due to the failure, many people could no longer coordinate themselves and had to fear for their lives.
When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $ 19 billion in 2014, it was another great value transaction that wouldn’t change anything for users. But last week’s outage proved what any kind of merger, especially in the tech space, means. The outage lasted about six hours, but what if it lasted a week? What would that mean for the economy and society? If social media will be the backbone of the economy in both developed and developing countries, should there be more controls and balances?
Concerns about the impact of social media on mental health and social life have long been debated with no concrete solutions. The outage came at a time when Facebook was already in the spotlight for its inaction in curbing some of the harmful effects its platforms had on people. A former Facebook data scientist, Frances Haugen, testified against Facebook, claiming the social media giant knowingly operates products that “harm children, divide and weaken our democracy.” This is not the first time Facebook has come under fire for its failure to protect its users, their privacy, and the spread of disinformation. After the failure, Frances Haugen made a strong statement saying that those five hours were when “Facebook wasn’t used to deepen rifts, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel guilty”.
According to the BBC, Frances Haugen had shared some internal Facebook documents with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and based on those documents, the WSJ reported that “research conducted by Instagram has shown the app could harm girls’ mental health.” While Mark Zuckerberg does not fully deny this research, he defends Instagram as a platform that has benefited many people as well. He talked about the failure and its impact on people who depend on the services of its platforms. He defended the social media platform and spoke about the misrepresentation of the research in his statement. As people continue to use the platforms, governments have raised concerns about how social media affects young and vulnerable people. Closing Facebook isn’t a viable option, but regulating social media sites and other big tech companies may be possible. It is important to monitor their activities and develop policies to hold these companies accountable for any negative impact. Countries like India, France, and Germany have some regulations that may not be foolproof. The Indian government recently tried to increase its control over social media content and Twitter and WhatsApp accounts, citing the country’s security as the reason. There was an outcry from Twitter and WhatsApp over the government’s attempt to prevent useful information from reaching people during the pandemic. When we talk about policing on social media, there is a fine line between improving security and allowing government access and control over freedom of expression.
Is there a balanced way of regulating social media and making it a safe space in the truest sense of the word? According to the CBC, the Liberal government in Canada has “promised to introduce new online hate speech laws within the first 100 days by holding companies accountable for the content that appears on their platforms.” While there was no clear outline of how they would enforce this, there is a general consensus on how to tackle the damage that unregulated free expression can do on social media. This could be a turning point in the internet revolution where technology companies and users come together to combat the negative impact on future generations.