Facebook needs a serious fix
Over the years, we have seen an increasing number of people worldwide becoming hugely reliant on Facebook, using the platform of the social media giant to connect with loved ones or reconnect with lost ones.
These days, as many of us avoid gatherings with family, friends and relatives because of Covid concerns, connecting on Facebook can at least cure our loneliness and allow us to learn what others need in these difficult times.
Millions more people under threat -- be they refugees or those affected by natural disasters -- rely on social media to let loved ones know they are okay. And in remote places where mobile phone service is poor or non-existent but internet is available, and in poor communities where people cannot afford mobile data, Facebook apps can be lifelines.
Millions of businesses large and small also rely on Facebook in a variety of ways. Using social media during the pandemic was a great way for small businesses to keep selling products when stores were closed. Restaurants can take orders, supermarkets can coordinate deliveries, and doctors, hairdressers and cleaners can book appointments. The app has also been a crucial tool for teachers of all kinds -- from tutors to yoga instructors -- to continue helping locked-down students.
That explains why the whole world freaked out last Monday when Facebook services went offline for six hours. The outage, the largest in the company's history, was triggered by a configuration error that left Facebook's servers unavailable, affecting its core platforms including WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.
The disruption cut off businesses and slowed e-commerce across dozens of countries. A few clever companies quickly created marketing pitches based on services going dark, underscoring the extent to which Facebook is at the centre of daily life.
Globally, 2.76 billion people on average used at least one Facebook product each day in June, according to company statistics. WhatsApp is used to send more than 100 billion messages a day, according to Sensor Tower. Just 17 years after it was founded, Facebook is a US$1-trillion company.
According to Downdetector, which tracks website outages, the Oct 4 mishap was the largest ever detected with 10.6 million problem reports. Facebook is no stranger to trouble, and the outage is just the latest blow to a public image frequently shaken by scandals.
Among them were accusations of Russian interference during the 2016 US presidential election, failure to restrain hate speech that spurred genocide in Myanmar, and the viral spread of disinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines.
Add to that Facebook Marketplace: with a billion users buying and selling goods, ProPublica found a growing pool of scammers and fraudsters exploiting the site, with Facebook failing "to safeguard users".
In recent weeks, Facebook has been under fire after a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, released internal documents indicating the company was aware of problems caused by its apps, including the potential "toxic" effect of Instagram on the mental health of teenage girls.
Testifying before the US Senate last Tuesday, the 37-year-old former Facebook employee accused the company of prioritising profit over the well-being of children and all users. "The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed," she said.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quick to declare that Ms Haugen's testimony created a "false picture of the company". He also said that instead of ignoring the fact that young people use technology, tech companies "should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe".
That is in line with Facebook's drive to attract more preteen users to Instagram. Instagram Kids, aimed at users under 13, is ready to launch but was paused days before the congressional hearing.
By now it should be clear to Facebook that showing responsibility that comes with the great power and wealth it has accumulated is vital to its long-term prosperity. Not everything is about short-term profit and growth.
As individuals, we have learned how dependent we have become on these services for so many everyday activities. It was a shock to suddenly be without them. But Facebook must be reminded that it's not too late for the public to pull the plug.
Legislators could drive that reminder home through rigorous regulation and independent oversight, so that companies like Facebook can't continue enjoying unrestricted operation and expansion without accountability.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor