Remember that day when Whatsapp was out? And then you panicked and tried Messenger, Facebook, Instagram until you realised only Twitter was working? Millions of start-ups and small companies across India, Brazil, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere also remember the 4th October 2021. The latter, however, stand in stark contrast to most of us, as we forgot about the outage as soon as we got over the annoyance of our friends’ missed texts. Regretfully, for less privileged economies, one day of a Facebook (or Meta, as it is newly named) malfunction meant chaos in hospitals, missed income, and an information block for governments.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a considerable amount of vital information is transmitted through Meta’s social media outlets. In the Philippines, there is heavy reliance on Facebook for schools and even government offices, especially regarding election campaigns and Covid-19 updates. So when the platform crashed, the consequences were politically drastic, causing insecurity and fear amongst a large group of citizens. Parents were unsure whether to send children to school given the possibility of sudden pandemic developments, whilst political leaders struggled to spread their message across the country.
It gets worse. For many small businesses, especially within the informal economy, the Meta disruption resulted in severe economic consequences. In Western countries, conversely, the outage barely impacted the economy, for most people have easy access to alternative communications, including cheap phone lines. However, businesses in India, Malaysia, and Brazil have been impacted severely by the loss of their primary means of communication. Indian small and medium enterprises, for instance, rely on the platform for consumer communication, with 1.5 million businesses using Facebook in April 2019, and the Brazilian informal economy employs a substantial 34.7 million people (up 40% during the pandemic). With sales and work schedules all managed through Whatsapp, informal workers lost several days’ worths of earnings, with one business estimating a loss of US$500. These workers have no chance of government benefits from earnings lost through such unforeseeable events, and savings are never high in a hand-to-mouth working lifestyle.
Chaos in hospitals ensued from the outage. Though unimaginable in Western society, which has alternatives to Whatsapp in the form of highly developed technology, many Indian hospitals rely on Whatsapp to transmit life-saving information. Patient scans, ward updates, and working schedules are often sent by Whatsapp, with phone lines proving too expensive or inefficient to use. Indian doctor Sanjay Nagral tweeted that a seriously ill patient collapsed due to a missing CT scan during the Whatsapp outage. Another organisation whose vital work was impaired by the media crash was a Colombian emergency helpline for victims of gender-based violence. Many calls from women suffering domestic, emotional violence, sexual exploitation or even trafficking might have been missed, a tragic consequence from something so minor as a system malfunction.
Only 24 hours of missed communication resulted in a shockingly far-reaching aftereffect. This point has both a positive and a negative realisation to it. On the one hand, Meta as a corporation has kept an entire informal economic sector afloat, making jobs accessible worldwide and maintaining a reliable communications network in the poorest regions, to the point where governments, hospitals, and helplines have been relying on it. Especially during Covid, when many sectors of the economy transformed to digital means, Whatsapp has certainly been used as a tool to enable unforeseeable and beneficial developments. On the other hand, the outage was a wake-up call, revealing how dependent the entire global economy is on the stable performance of one company and how disproportionately such an outage affects people across the developing world. The problems of supply-chain dependency go further than a risk of physical blockage in the Suez canal: it only takes one company slip-up to crumble the entire informal economic sector for a couple of days.
There is a legal and infrastructural explanation to the power of one western company, Meta. International trade laws have increased inequality through import protections. The EU’s community law rules that third country imports, including goods supplied through electronic interface, are charged with VAT. Essentially, such measures limit the high profitability of the services sector to developed countries and keep rural agricultural and mining sectors geographically placed in developing countries. With each added value of the product, the tax becomes higher, and the profitability of a third country selling it in the EU lessens. Therefore, it makes most sense economically for developing countries to export the raw materials and products before they are manufactured. As a result, the manufacturing and service industry remains thriving in the EU, whilst third countries focus on the raw material industries, generating less income. For this reason, it is challenging and less profitable to produce a service-based product like social media in a third-world country. Instead, it is much easier to stick to the economic status quo: developing countries make the raw materials and unfinished technological goods, whilst the most profitable software is left for Silicon Valley to produce.
Logically, globalisation and international trade have benefitted the most international businesses. However, the global economic sectors tend to be monopolised by large firms and are thus detrimental to smaller firms, such as rural fisheries, agriculturists, and local female entrepreneurs. This trend is especially true for a company like Meta. Whilst economies of scale and universalisation are highly advantageous for efficient global communications, the monopolisation of social media and keeping competitors out of the market has worsened global trade inequalities in the media sector. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out Whatsapp for its monopolistic ambitions to “own, copy or destroy any competitive platform”. Competitors in the industry would improve the services and decrease the precarious dependency on one firm – the gates for fair market competition need to be opened by removing the legal and financial obstacles for social media start-ups.
The disproportionate effects of the Whatsapp crash in developing countries should have been a wake-up call for a system change. However, the general population forgot about the event after the involuntary social media detox. There is a glaring issue of global supply-chain dependency and inequality, which has become lost in unawareness. Whilst the US Federal Trade Commission is currently considering a lawsuit over Facebook’s antitrust behaviour, the issue is broader than a single company. The legal infrastructure which allowed one western company to gain such political, social, and economic global power in the first place must be revised, lest we let history repeat itself with another company in a different sector. One can only hope to see more equal trade relations arise between developed and developing nations in the future.