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WHODUNNIT?

The 14-hour blackout on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp on March 14 spelt trauma for addictive users. Most of them think there was some mischief afoot

“At first I was confused. But then I went straight into panic mode,” confesses 18-year-old Batul, who’s gearing up for college. As she was scrolling through her Facebook feed on the evening of March 14, the page stopped reloading. The Facebook and Instagram blackouts that happened during those hours  had spooked a majority of the population, and the questions about why and how it happened are still floating around the web space.

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — all experienced blackouts for up to 14 hours on that particular day. It was experienced in many parts of the world, and affected users in different places differently. Facebook claimed that it was a minor server change that had triggered the blackout of three of the most visited social media sites in the world. However, the fallout has been much bigger than Facebook is letting on.

During the time that all Facebook owned websites were down for almost half a day, it gave rise to suspicion, anxiety and most of all theorising. And what continues to be suspicious is the lack of solid explanation from the social media moguls.

Batul says after trying to refresh her Facebook page a few times, she simply assumed that her internet connectivity was weak as that is often a concern for her in Chhatarpur. However, when an hour later, the same problem persisted, she began to lose her cool.

“My instinct  is to switch to Instagram or Snapchat, if I am bored with Facebook. But this time when I tried to open Instagram — it was also down!” Batul is a person who takes Instagram very seriously. “It’s like my own public photo album, right? I post whatever I want to remember, so that even if my phone gets lost, my pictures on Instagram will be safe,” she reasons. And when her back-up of Instagram also disappointed, she  decoded it was time to panic.

“I tried to send messages to my friends to ask if they were facing the same problems, but WhatsApp had also stopped working, I found out later. I thought I had been hacked!” She unplugged her Wi-Fi router, turned her phone on and off, and went through all the other generic motions. Until finally, the news of the blackout hit the floors.

Soon after the sites went dark, and complaints started pouring in, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp all took to Twitter to announce that they were looking into the problem.  The longest blackout since 2008, when Facebook hit 150 million users, this time scores of questions about system hacks were raised.

“I was on a Facebook video call with my parents when the site zapped,” says 24-year-old Kaustabh. Currently living in Delhi, he was video calling his parents in Bhopal when the call suddenly got disconnected. “I called them up, and they said that Facebook was flashing a message that read ‘Facebook will be back soon’, while my page was just not reloading at all.”

Not a very avid social media user, Kaustabh decided he would just come back to it the next morning. By which time the problem had been rectified. “The lack of WhatsApp was a little bit problematic,” he adds, “I use it all the time to communicate as I do not like talking on the phone. So, I got two of my friends to download Telegram messenger with me for the time being. Telegram Messenger reported gaining over 3 million users during the time the outages were on.

It has been about five days since the outage, and complaints of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram misbehaving are still pouring in, some as recently as March 18 morning. It seems that users in some parts of the world like India, Bangladesh, Brazil and Argentina are still facing some problems.

Natasha, 22, says she was quite frightened when her Instagram stopped responding because she had been hacked before, and this is how it had looked. A couple of years ago, her system had been hacked, and since her social media was all interlinked via her email, all of that data simply disappeared from her folders.

Since then, she has obviously been more careful. So, the sudden glitch in her social media accounts made her very anxious. “I was just hoping against hope that I hadn’t been hacked again. The last time we had to clean out my entire system, make new accounts in a few cases and get my number changed – I did not want to go through all of that this time around. I don’t think people really appreciate how exhaustive social media is until they have to rebuild their accounts!” she laughs.

The reason that this particular blackout is calling for more attention than normal is that it was absolutely unprecedented. Not only that, but also the fact that the problem, almost a week past when it started, continues to persist – and most importantly, a believable and hence proven explanation for said blackouts is yet to be given by the show runners. Theories about a hack within the system or an external attack are far more convincing than lukewarm statements about a BGP failure or a server configuration change as of now.