What caused the Facebook outage and how it affected global users, businesses

Facebook and its group of apps and social media platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram were down most of Monday. The outages come on the eve of another difficult congressional hearing for the social media giant. The cause of the outages still has not been explained. Sheera Frenkel of The New York Times reports on Facebook extensively and joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Facebook and its group of apps and social media channels went down for most of this day.

    William Brangham looks at the latest, all of it coming on the eve of another difficult congressional hearing for the social media giant.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Facebook's app, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, went dark for several hours today, and, at this moment, they appear to be slowly coming back up. The cause of the outages still has not been explained, but for the more than three billion people in the United States and abroad who use these apps to communicate and to do business, these outages were a huge disruption and a reminder of these apps' influence.

    Sheera Frenkel of The New York Times reports on Facebook extensively, and has been following this all day. She's the co-author of "An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination."

    Sheera, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    Can you help us understand, what is it that happened today?

    Sheera Frenkel, Co-Author, "An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle For Domination": So, starting at about 9:00 a.m. Pacific today out here in California, Facebook and its family of apps went down.

    That includes Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus. These are platforms that, as you said, impact over 3.5 billion people. And, for several hours, no one, including the security engineers at Facebook knew what was going on.

    This was amplified by the fact that Facebook's own internal communications were down. So it wasn't just that we couldn't access Facebook.com. Facebook engineers couldn't get into their own e-mails, and they couldn't even access their own buildings in many cases.

  • William Brangham:

    Is there any evidence — I mean, this is what we always think of when these kinds of things happen nowadays — that this was a hack of some kind?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    At this point in time, we don't see evidence that this was a hack.

    We spoke to nearly a dozen engineers that are working within Facebook, many of them directly to fix this. And they said that it's extremely unlikely that a hacker would be able to have this kind of impact, that it would take down all these Facebook apps at the same time.

    What was a lot more likely and what seems to have happened was that it was an internal update rolled out by Facebook that just went very badly, and which it took them many, many hours to try and fix.

  • William Brangham:

    OK, for the skeptics out there who say, why are we even paying attention to this, can you just remind us of the stakes here? That billions of people use these apps, and they're not just teenagers sharing pictures and videos of their friends.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    Absolutely.

    Well, we hope they're not just teenagers sharing pictures of them and their friends, given all the reporting The Wall Street Journal did last week on the effect of Instagram on teenagers. Facebook is largely used by businesses all over the world.

    We have to remember that in countries ranging from Sri Lanka to Myanmar to Indonesia, Facebook is the way people do business and WhatsApp is a way that people do business. We spoke to shop owners all over the world today who said that their businesses were effectively shut down because people could not get to their Facebook pages and because they could not use WhatsApp to message people. We also spoke to people who couldn't reach family members, who couldn't reach elderly family members in other parts of the world because WhatsApp was down.

    So this is something that people use it is practically a utility in many parts of the world and in many people's lives.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as you say, that Facebook in many places is in some places a stand in for the Internet, is the vehicle by which people get onto the Internet.

    This comes, for people who've been paying attention to this, at an incredibly in our opportune moment for Facebook. We saw last night on "60 Minutes" a whistle-blower came forward who you referenced who's been arguing that Facebook has not been doing enough to tamp down on some of the what it knows to be damaging impact that its Web site has on teenagers.

    This also comes after a year-plus its scrutiny about their behavior and whether they have cracked down on hate and misinformation that you reported in your book, and then a hearing coming tomorrow on Capitol Hill.

    I mean, this is — they are in the crosshairs as much as possible on the very day that their Web site goes down.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    You couldn't really think of worse timing, as far as Facebook is concerned, for people to be going to Google and Twitter and putting in there, what is wrong with Facebook or what is the problem with Facebook?

    Because they're going to come back with hundreds of articles that were written in the last week pointing to really deep systemic problems within Facebook. You just touched on many of those in your question, the ways in which Instagram is bad for teenagers, the way in which Facebook as a platform has promoted hate speech and misinformation.

    These are things that journalists have been writing about for year and, as you noted, which we covered in our book, which came out this summer. But we now have a whistle-blower who's come forward with internal documents showing that Facebook was sitting on research showing — showing — sorry, just how bad the platform was, just how many harms the platform was causing.

    And despite that research, they continued to make decisions which amplified hate speech, which increased the amount of misinformation people saw, and which marketed their product towards teenagers, which we know are incredibly sensitive to the harms of Instagram.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that this is not air traffic control, this is not a missile defense, this is not a hospital, but, as you said, there are plenty of examples in which Facebook is a vital ability for people to get onto the Internet.

    But it is a little bit alarming, I think it's fair to say, that something as simple as this glitch that you're describing that could be what happened here could take down such a central part of the Internet.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    Absolutely.

    And I think it shows us the danger of Facebook having such a large role to play in the infrastructure of the Internet. I mean, one thing I hadn't said before which people should also consider is that many people use Facebook to log into other apps. They use it to log into their smart home systems, like their smart TVs, or even their smart thermostats.

    So when Facebook went down, people couldn't access basic things around their house. I mean, this is a mega-Internet company that touches on so many different aspects of your lives. And, in some way, it takes Facebook going down in this really sort of catastrophic and immense way for people to understand just how many parts of their lives this company touches on.

  • William Brangham:

    Indeed.

    Sheera Frenkel, always good to see you from The New York Times. Thank you very much for being here.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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