Six hours without Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – is social media now vital infrastructure?

Social media is central to our lives. It is arguably essential to our lives. Many of us believe it is helpful to our lives, though some blame it for the evils of the world.

When Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went offline for six hours yesterday, there was immediate outrage about the outage on Twitter but of course the other main social networks had been silenced.

The outage interrupted important council business for me. On the other hand, there were no distractions as I tucked into dinner and prepared for sleep. And I slept well.

Perhaps, we should shut down social media for a whole day a week to give us all a break from the continual stream of contacts. That’s a nice idea. But are we reaching the point that provision of social media has become such a part of our lives that it should be regarded as vital infrastructure? Perhaps it needs a regulator, Offsocial.

Downdetector.co.uk

I was chatting to a resident online when the screen came up with the message that Facebook was not available. I didn’t have her contact details and had not made a record of her name by the time we were cut off. We have got back in contact this morning but I regret the delay.

For those that ask why I don’t use email rather than social media to communicate, the answer is that same as I would give for using email rather than the telephone. It is easier. Asynchronous. It is also client led. My clients as a councillor live my Ludlow ward and in the wider area. For many Facebook messenger is how they chat. It has replaced texts because it is free and more user friendly. If they prefer to contact me by social media. So be it.

We councillors in Shropshire, like most I think, use WhatsApp to chat throughout the day and to discuss tactics during full  council meetings. In the old days, we would pass notes in full council but we are not seated close enough together in meetings to do that in these Covid-19 days.

And yes, I use social media for personal communications too – but that is personal.

Social media is more than social communication. It is a platform for business. People buy and sell. They advertise events. They raise money for charity. On Instagram in particular, influencers are paid to promote products and places. We have used influencers here in Ludlow as part of our post pandemic recovery. They have promoted positive messages about the town and our reputation for good food and drink. It’s worked.

We use social media politically to promote candidates and parties. It is a vital source for real time information and videos during protests and emergencies. Facebook runs crisis response.

If this incident tells us anything, is that social media is now vital infrastructure. So much of our communication is now reliant on social media. We need to protect that infrastructure.

The three biggest social media networks in the west are under the control of a single company. More generally, the control of physical infrastructure is under the control of a few tech giants.

This gives us little resilience to emergencies.

Although any regulator would only have responsibilities in the UK, perhaps we should set up Offsocial as a statement that it is now time to talk seriously about the social media infrastructure that has become essential to our lives and wellbeing.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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15 Comments

  • John Marriott 5th Oct '21 - 10:17am

    No Facebook, Instagram etc. What’s not to like?😀😀👍👍

  • There certainly are arguments for regulating social media, but I’m not sure that last night’s downtime was one of them. The main lesson from last night is that, if communicating with someone is vital to you or your business, then you should make sure you have more than one means of communicating with that person – and let’s face it, between Facebook, phone calls, text messages, email, WeChat, Skype, WhatsApp, Slack, etc., there are lots of alternatives. The only possible point of concern I think last night raises is the issue of Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp being owned by the same company and run apparently from the same infrastructure. I rather suspect that right now, quite a few managers at Facebook will be thinking quite hard about the single-point-of-failure issues that that design choice entailed.

    As an example, you mention chatting to a resident online… Without wanting to minimise the annoyance and inconvenience of having that interrupted, I would assume that, as a councillor, your contact details are publicly available, and therefore, if the resident’s problem was urgent, it would have taken him/her just a few moments to to look up your email address and contact you that way instead, once it became apparent the FB wasn’t working?

  • Barry Lofty 5th Oct '21 - 10:45am

    What a sad world we live in when life comes to a standstill because these social media sites go down, now if the same were happen to the Tory party conference!!!

  • Nigel Jones 5th Oct '21 - 10:46am

    I find Andy’s suggestion that facebook is a vital part of our communication infrastructure, interesting but worrying. I find e-mail so much easier than facebook and I can control it better; I am not the only one among Lib-Dem activists in this regard, including a couple who are much younger than myself (they are in their twenties) who have recently given up on facebook and their like and gone back to rely on e-mails and phone calls.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Oct '21 - 10:52am

    As a non-user of any of the public social networks I’m in step with John Marriott’s views on this.

    “The only possible point of concern I think last night raises is the issue of Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp being owned by the same company and run apparently from the same infrastructure. ”
    Andy – I assume you’re looking at this for now purely regarding the issue of multiple eggs in the same basket – please correct me if my assumption is wrong.
    However… e.g. https://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/trust-facebook-has-dropped-51-percent-cambridge-analytica-scandal-n867011

    Why on earth would you trust such an organisation for use in conducting your councillor activities?

    Also is there an assumption that someone who wished to serve their community by seeking election as a councillor – and let’s say a Libdem councillor – woulldn’t be acceptable as a potential candidate if they declined to use facebook or any other system owned by Zuckerberg? Or any other public social network who they felt should not be trusted with personal data? If so wouldn’t that be rather illiberal?

  • nigel hunter 5th Oct '21 - 10:55am

    If they are controlled by one organisation that is a monopoly.Not good. Equally an outside country which is not ‘in tune’ with the west can cause considerable damage to the entire system.That will only take time before it happens.Reliance on one sort of system is not a good thing. Although slow a letter thru the post is secure

  • “As an example, you mention chatting to a resident online… Without wanting to minimise the annoyance and inconvenience of having that interrupted, I would assume that, as a councillor, your contact details are publicly available, and therefore, if the resident’s problem was urgent, it would have taken him/her just a few moments to to look up your email address and contact you that way instead, once it became apparent the FB wasn’t working?”

    Indeed. And any councillor who is only accessible through social media is inaccessible to me as I neither use it, nor wish to use it. If they insist that they wish to be contacted this way then they can lose my vote – I do use a ballot box!

  • Phil Beesley 5th Oct '21 - 2:45pm

    When Facebook’s services were first offered in the UK, I owned a .ac.uk email address which permitted me to join. I looked at it and asked people and Facebook just seemed like the place creeps went to stalk people. The web was a more open place in those days, and many of my former work colleagues and old mates (admittedly, middle class and educated) could be contacted.

    As Simon R commented, Facebook’s infrastructure is based around Facebook, which is a bit of a problem. Only those who can remember twelve digit IP addresses or the hex equivalent can fix the system.

    I have a problem with social media usage by councillors. Or should I say, protect yourselves. Email is great for communication — not perfect — because there’s a pretty good trail, even when messages are deleted. Or a phone call.

  • Robert Hale 6th Oct '21 - 7:38am

    I have never signed up to social media so yesterday was a normal day for me and just as busy!

  • Andy Boddington 6th Oct '21 - 7:52am

    @SimonR I agree that the biggest social media platforms in the west should not be owned by the same company. We also suffer from convergent technologies where different companies use the same platforms and the same cloud servers, etc.

    @Adam If someone contacts me via social media, it is often because they do not feel comfortable with email, which seems more formal and more public. I take a view that no one should feel uncomfortable with contacting me.

    There are of course alternative ways of communicating. When social media fails, use email. When email fails, use phones. When phones fail, lick a stamp and put the letter in the post. When the post fails, knock on a door.

    But that is not the direction that young people, potentially young voters are going. We have a choice of communicating in the way we used to do, or the way that future voters want to do. If we want to be a major party, we must communicate in a major way. That major way is now on social media. That’s the real word, albeit a world that some people think is unreal.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Oct '21 - 8:32am

    @Andy Boddington
    “If someone contacts me via social media, it is often because they do not feel comfortable with email, which seems more formal and more public.”

    Is there an implication that they do not trust that your local authority’s email system is secure and that their communications with you would remain confidendtial?

    Because if so it seems to me that it beggars belief that they apparently assume social media communications are trustworthy and confidential when actually such businesses are built on harvesting personal data.

    “But that is not the direction that young people, potentially young voters are going. We have a choice of communicating in the way we used to do, or the way that future voters want to do.”

    Doesn’t that presuppose that young people have sufficient understanding of the social media business model?

  • Andy Boddington 6th Oct '21 - 9:00am

    @Nonconformistradical You miss the point entirely. No one thinks for a moment about security of council or other systems. It is about using space where people can talk in a comfort zone. Sometimes a safe zone. We can’t look down to young people and suggest that they do not have a sufficient understanding of the social media busines model. Social media makes them aware of that. Contrary to some who view social media with distain, we can create safe zones where we can talk and after that act if needed.

  • Ellen Nicholson 6th Oct '21 - 10:32am

    I didn’t miss it at all – in fact totally missed the outrage. Went out to watch Bond instead.

  • Charles Smith 6th Oct '21 - 7:28pm

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday finally addressed the series of claims made by whistleblower Frances Haugen, denying that the social media company prioritizes its profits over the safety of its users.

    “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being,” Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook profile. “That’s just not true.”

    Zuckerberg’s comments come after nearly a month of reports out of the Wall Street Journal that have relied on internal Facebook research provided to the publication by Haugen, who left the social media company in May. The stories have highlighted numerous problems on Facebook’s services that the company is aware of but either ignores or does not resolve. This includes research that shows Facebook is aware that Instagram is detrimental to the mental health of teenagers.
    https://worldabcnews.com/zuckerberg-denies-that-facebook-prioritizes-profits-over-user-safety/

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Oct '21 - 6:31pm

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