The week began with a tech outage of epic proportion – as nearly half the human population was left in the dark for six long hours with Social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram inaccessible across the world. The outage was the longest by any service in the last few years and was a particularly embarrassing one for the company because of the snowball effect of the original networking problem which led to staff being unable to access systems remotely to fix the problem and then restricting them from entering offices physically because those access systems also went down.
If ever there was proof necessary of the inextricability of Facebook and its suite of apps in our lives, this was it. Most Sri Lankans were winding down for the day when the outage happened and woke up to find services restored. But plenty of individuals and businesses were left in the lurch when the outage happened unannounced, affecting the way the primary platforms on which they do business and communicate.
While it is certainly a wake-up call especially for businesses and individuals that rely so heavily on these platforms, the truth is that the way they are built means that when they do work (very well and dependably most of the time), they are designed to be useful and easy and enjoyable and thereby to get us hooked. The alternatives have failed to have that same expansive influence on how we stay connected. The problem with how these services are so intrinsically woven into our everyday lives is the huge power it transfers to a business entity driven as Facebook is, by the vision of a single private citizen.
The debate on the pitfalls of social media and how they may be better regulated has raged on for years; just this week in the US, a former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower has been giving evidence on how Facebook is harmful to children, destabilises democracy, and deepens divisions among people. She argues that Mark Zuckerberg and his team have prioritised profit over the safety of its users. Facebook and its group of apps collects huge volumes of user data, but there’s little transparency on how that data is being used to customise content for each user. Zuckerburg maintains that his company is a force for good.
The problems of social media’s toxicity are not alien to Sri Lanka. It has been the source of disinformation and division during many events of the past, fanning racial tension and subtly used to inflame public opinion and manipulate perceptions. We have 8 million social media users and it may safely be assumed that a large proportion of those are active on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which has rapidly become the default messaging and voice call app and an essential tool in how people work and stay connected. Sri Lanka too would do well to strengthen its regulatory oversight over social media, as is being demanded from governments the world over.
Social media has indeed been a force for good and an agent of positive social change in many instances. It is a way to stay informed, to alert people, to promote causes, and to gather support to make a difference, and so much more. It has been a pivotal influence in movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter; even in Sri Lanka, social media furores and activism have led to high-profile investigations, policy reversals, and resignations.
It’s cynical and futile to think social media is all bad. What is bad is the overarching power achieved by one private company sans any meaningful regulation or accountability. The good of social media can be harnessed better through effective oversight that balances the right to free speech with the need to protect citizens.