For one blessed day on October 4, 2021, Facebook vanished from the face of the Earth. Along with its corporate siblings – Instagram, WhatsApp, Workplace, and Messenger – the platform that CollegeHumor referred to as “the site that commits treason and also tells you what your parents are doing” was taken out by an outage that, as of this writing, remains unexplained. Facebook says it reconfigured how it routes traffic through its servers and that brought the whole party down and that’s really all they’re going to say about it.
That’s not unusual. First, it seems like Facebook’s crew accidentally toppled its whole network and the last thing the company wants to do is publicly reveal just how silly the outage was. Moreover, Facebook is loathe to reveal to potential bad actors where the flaws in its network are, even if it repairs those flaws and strengthens those weak points, in the off chance that it unintentionally provides the blueprint for other weaknesses that could be exploited.
Or maybe it was because conspiracy.
No sooner had Facebook users requested to reset their forgotten Twitter passwords than the conspiracy theories began to fly. After all, the server outage coincided with testimony about how very evil Facebook is. Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, was one of the folks assigned to try to reduce misinformation. She handed internal documents over to journalists revealing that Facebook’s approach to reducing misinformation was to anything necessary as long as it didn’t impact the company’s profits.
Haugen’s revelations have been pretty significant, but social media has worked well to quell them. For example, the documents showed that 13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes them suicidal, which is not great. Teens use fake accounts – nicknamed “Finstas” – to hide their social media use, and Facebook enables this with special privacy and security features. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Facebook to commit to ending their practices around these fake accounts. In the hearings, Blumenthal correctly identifies the practices and the way these fake accounts are used, but a video circulating begins just after this moment. It’s a clever bit of editing to make Blumenthal look out of touch. It circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and none of them thought to post one of those “fact check” tags to note that Blumenthal is being taken out of context.
“Facebook also knows that nearly every teen in the United States has an Instagram account; it can only add more users as fast as there are new 13-year-olds.”Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut)
Facebook is a haven of disinformation. It rewards lies over truth. It isn’t alone, though. Users on Reddit speculated that Facebook’s global outage was linked to Haugen’s testimony. News outlets wondered if Facebook had been hacked. There’s as of yet no evidence to support a hacking claim, and exactly why Facebook would take down its services during the whistleblower testimony isn’t clear.
The hearings around Facebook have focused on the ways the company and its services have been harmful for society, something that’s been discussed for years now without action. Yet the day without Facebook warns that it isn’t just that one company and its platforms. We are too eager to embrace speculation. Eliminate Facebook and the speculation shifts to Twitter, to Reddit, to YouTube, to TikTok. The information age heralded the information overload age, one in which platforms that deliver all information – from chicken sandwich wars to declarations of war – with the same level of importance. Misinformation is not a problem unique to just one of those platforms, it is on all of them, and unless we’re willing to take steps to fight misinformation on all fronts, our days without Facebook are not going to make much of a difference.