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Explainer: Why did Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp go down yesterday?

The platforms were down for around six hours yesterday.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND WhatsApp went down yesterday after they were hit by a major outage, leaving millions of users around the world unable to access the social media platforms. 

The outage lasted for around six hours, rendering the platforms inaccessible and preventing Facebook employees from gaining access to buildings after their digital badges stopped working. 

Users were eventually able to access Facebook and Instagram from late on Monday evening, while WhatsApp said its services were “back and running at 100%” as of 3.30am last night.  

What happened?

Facebook has blamed a “faulty configuration change” for the widespread outage.

In a statement, the company said: “Our engineering teams have learned that configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between our data centers caused issues that interrupted this communication.”

“This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centers communicate, bringing our services to a halt,” it said. 

The “backbone routers” referred to here are known as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routers. 

The internet is made up of connected networks which host an enormous amount of data. Essentially, BGP acts as a roadmap for all of this data, allowing people to navigate these networks and help them to find the website they want and the quickest route to it. 

In Facebook’s case, the “faulty configuration change” took away the roadmap that tells people how to find the site, telling BGP that the route to access Facebook no longer existed and making it unavailable to users. 

Not only did this affect Facebook itself, but everything Facebook runs, meaning the roadmap to Instagram and WhatsApp didn’t exist either. 

How did they fix it?

The matter seems to have been made more complicated due to the fact that Facebook’s own internal systems were affected by the outage. 

This left staff unable to access the network remotely, with staff being locked out of offices after their badges stopped working.

According to The New York Times, the platform eventually restored service after a technical team got access to its server computers at a data center in Santa Clara, California.  

It is believed they had to manually reset the servers where the problem originated.

What impact did it have?

The impact of the outage was felt globally. 

Facebook has roughly 2.89 billion active users, making it the biggest social network in the world. 

Not only is it used for communication purposes, but it’s also used for business. 

“With Facebook being down we’re losing thousands in sales,” Irish business owner Mark Donnelly told The New York Times

“It may not sound like a lot to others, but missing out on four or five hours of sales could be the difference between paying the electricity bill or rent for the month.”

As of July, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in the world with around two billion monthly active users, outranking Facebook Messenger at 1.3 billion. 

It is Ireland’s main messaging service, with around 80% of adults using the app. 

WhatsApp also has a business edition of the app, used by over five million businesses worldwide. 

Photo sharing app Instagram gets around one billion monthly active users, and is also used by individuals and small businesses for trade.

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The app is especially popular in India and in the United States, which have respectively 180 million and 170 million Instagram users each.

In January, there were over 2.2 million Instagram users in Ireland. 

Could it happen again?

In short, yes.

There is no reason that this sort of outage couldn’t happen again. In fact, this is not the first time Facebook has suffered a major outage. 

In 2019, the platform and its other apps were left mostly inaccessible for about two hours before they gradually returned online. 

The company also blamed this outage on a “server configuration change”. 

Is the timing suspicious?

There has been much speculation about the timing of the outage.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to appear before US congress today after leaking thousands of documents to the Wall Street Journal.

Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, has said the platform prioritises its own interests over the public good.

She also claimed it off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in last year’s elections, contributing to the invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January.

About the author:

Jane Moore

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