Business Standard

FB outage drives home a toxic reality


It’s been a bad week for The Social Network. A fumble with routing Border Gateway Protocols (BGP) led to an epic multi-hour shutdown of Facebook (FB), Whatsapp and Instagram. FB also faced very damaging accusation­s from a whistleblo­wer. Data scientist Frances Haugen, who quit FB in April, pointed to leaked studies to back up her assertions that FB encourages toxic content on its networks in its relentless pursuit of profits.

The BGP mix-up led to direct losses for millions, and of course, for the network itself. Ms Haugen’s revelation­s added another crucial set of data-points that could induce legislator­s and regulators into acting to rein in the digital giant.

Taken together, this emphasises something we knew: Monopolies are bad. Be it nascent sectors, or old economy; monopolies are always bad.

The BGP outage is easier to quantify and understand. Facebook lost well over $500,000 for every hour it was down, just going by ad-revenues. It would also have to spend vast amounts on disaster recovery systems to ensure that this type of outage doesn’t recur.

Businesses depending on FB, Whatsapp, or Instagram, for engagement­s with customers and potential customers, closing deals, and maintainin­g associate relationsh­ips, also suffered huge disruption­s. Quantifyin­g those losses is difficult.

Some of these businesses are massive — banks and transnatio­nal corporatio­ns use these networks. Some are tiny “shops” run by individual­s — grandmas selling home-made pickles. But the losses incurred would be many multiples of the direct hit FB took in ad-revenues, since businesses allocate only a percentage of revenues to ads/ marketing.

What’s more, due to the dominance of FB and its subsidiari­es, there are no alternativ­e channels to migrate work-loads. FB may be able to create an effective disaster-recovery plan. Regardless, competitio­n is necessary. The world needs alternativ­e instant messenger (IM) platforms and digital imaging platforms, with the same characteri­stics of strong network effects, guarantees of endto-end encryption (for whatever that’s worth), and ease of use.

Ms Haugen has filed multiple complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the US market regulator, and at the non-profit legal organisati­on, Whistleblo­wer Aid. She has also testified to the US Congress, and given media interviews. She has asserted much of the content on Instagram is known to damage the mental health of young people, according to FB’S own internal studies. She has also stated FB content is toxic and “weakens democracy”. She cited many leaked internal studies, which came to these conclusion­s, before being ignored in the search for profits.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2016 showed that the FB platform was then weaponised to influence the Brexit Referendum result. Fake news on FB generated by bad actors out of Eastern Europe, also contribute­d to Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

Ms Haugen referred to several more recent studies. These included a leaked internal FB document, “Adversaria­l Harmful Networks — India Case Study”, cited in the SEC complaints. This study says, among other things, that FB was a preferred platform for “fear-mongering anti-muslim narratives” in India, with fake content created, distribute­d and promoted by a network of RSS workers, using multiple accounts each controlled by single-users.

Ms Haugen also cited claims in internal documents that “40 per cent of Top VPV (View Port Views, or impression­s) of civic posters in West Bengal (in the run-up to the 2021 Assembly elections) were fake/inauthenti­c. The highest-vpv user to be assessed as ‘inauthenti­c’ had more than 30 million (impression­s) accrued in the last 28 days”. Anybody who uses Whatsapp in India is also undoubtedl­y aware of similar content being pushed out through Whatsapp messenger groups. Despite disclaimer­s from FB, Ms Haugen’s accusation­s seem to ring true.

This brings us back to the monopoly issue. People use FB and its subsidiari­es for many reasons, ranging from casual interactio­ns with friends, to generating income in various ways. Users cannot step off these platforms because there are no practical alternativ­es. This means constant exposure to toxic garbage.

Regulators and legislator­s clearly need to find ways to enable competitio­n, and to enforce better content moderation. Neither task will be easy. This is especially true because political formations, which have successful­ly used these platforms to spew out toxicity, would have to undermine their own outreach models.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India