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Sensemaker: Facebook down

Sensemaker: Facebook down

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A worldwide outage hit Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram for several hours (more below).
  • American oil prices rose to their highest level in seven years after Opec, the cartel of 13 oil-producing countries, refused to accelerate crude production to help ease the global energy crunch. 
  • Between nine and 12 young Cuban baseball players defected during a tournament in Mexico. The rest of the 24-strong team will return on Monday.

Facebook down

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed her identity on Sunday. She had been supplying journalists with internal documents that showed, among other things, how the company keeps users engaged by making them angry and hostile. The more engaged they are, the more advertising it can sell. It has even, by its own admission, been used to “incite offline violence” – in Myanmar. 

Yesterday, a day after Haugen went on TV, a major outage hit Facebook – including its major apps WhatsApp and Instagram – and lasted for several hours. The episode gave the world an opportunity to imagine life without Facebook.

Here’s what happened. Facebook’s apps began displaying error messages around 11.40am Eastern time. Within five minutes, Facebook disappeared from the worldwide Internet.

The outage led to domino effects across countless other apps and services – including shopping websites, smart TVs, and thermostats – on which people use Facebook to sign in. Resorting to the rival social media platform Twitter, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said his company was “aware” of the outage, apologised for the inconvenience, and was trying to fix it.

The exact cause was unclear. It was unlikely to be a cyberattack because an attack rarely affects so many apps at once. A more likely explanation was a misconfiguration of Facebook’s server computers:

  • Facebook made a change on Monday morning to its network routing information. The update accidentally affected the company’s domain name servers – eg Facebook.com – which other web servers and Internet browsers use as a lookup system.
  • The change made Facebook’s servers unavailable to Internet users. Its services – Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram – were forced offline.
  • Normally, this problem would be straightforward to fix. An engineer would send another update to reset the company’s domain server addresses, effectively reminding the Internet where to find them.
  • But Facebook had organised its servers so that any such update would have to be sent through its own servers. So, when it accidentally kicked its servers offline, it also kicked off its ability to send the update.
  • The servers were, for a time, not even physically accessible. The outage meant that the smartcards Facebook employees used to get into the data centre that contains the servers to instruct them to send the necessary update were also hit by the outage. Employees needed a physical key, kept by the head of physical security, to override the smartcard door lock.

The outage ended by about 7pm Eastern time. It’s unclear whether an engineer managed to get in and plug a keyboard directly into the server, or whether the problem was solved by remote access. Over the course of yesterday, Facebook shares dropped more than 5 per cent. The company was trolled on Twitter and across other platforms. But, as long as its own platforms were down, the world was spared their side-effects as itemised by Haugen and the WSJ. They include:

  • a segregated online universe in which a system set up as quality control for high-profile accounts ended up shielding VIPs from normal enforcement of Facebook’s rules;
  • the known negative impact of Instagram on the mental health of millions of young users, especially teenage girls;
  • a 2018 adjustment to Facebook’s algorithms that was supposed to nurture closer interactions between friends and family but made people angrier instead; and 
  • an effort to help vaccinate the world against Covid that provided a platform for anti-vaxxers to spread “barrier to vaccination content” including doubts about vaccine safety and the severity of the pandemic. 

Remember: you can always log off. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Far from perfect
Cressida Dick announced there would be a six-month independent review of London’s Metropolitan Police in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder and new revelations about a toxic culture within the force. A “high-profile figure” will lead the review, which will look at the “training, leadership, processes, systems and standards of behaviour, and examine cases where officers have let the public down”. An officer who served in the same unit as Wayne Couzens appeared yesterday in court on charges of rape. Dick also said yesterday there would be 650 additional officers on London’s streets to protect women and children in hotspot areas. An admission that the Met is “far from perfect” may be welcomed by some campaigners, but it’s unlikely to rebuild trust in the force and in Dick’s leadership. A recent YouGov poll found 38 per cent think she should resign. Let us know your view, on this and wider discussions about policing violence against women and girls, tonight in our Open News meeting

New things technology, science, engineering

Depression implant
A woman with severe depression has been successfully treated with a brain implant that delivers an electric pulse when it detects activity linked to the mental illness. Deep brain stimulation is used to treat epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease but has struggled to deal with depression, for which different areas of the brain can be responsible. Researchers from the University of California San Francisco measured the brain activity of the woman, called Sarah, before using machine learning to identify activity associated with a slump in mood. Scientists pinpointed a particular area of the brain that appeared to be a biomarker for depressive symptoms – whenever activity flares up in that area, an electrode sends tiny pulses to a closely connected part of the brain. “The device has kept my depression at bay,” said Sarah, “allowing me to return to my best self and rebuild a life worth living.” It remains to be seen whether the method can be generalised to a wider population. The 10–30 per cent of people whose depression does not respond to drug treatment might hope so.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Midwife exodus
One more to add to the growing list of UK shortages: midwives. The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has warned of an “exodus” due to staff shortages and midwives’ fear about their ability to deliver safe care. In a survey of members the RCM found 57 per cent were considering leaving their role as a midwife or maternity support worker, 84 per cent were not happy with staffing levels and 67 per cent were not satisfied with the quality of care they could deliver. The highest levels of dissatisfaction were among midwives who’ve spent five years or less working in the NHS: 96 per cent of that group said they didn’t feel valued by the government and half said they were considering leaving. One recently qualified midwife is now seeking employment in New Zealand because of UK working conditions told Sensemaker the unit where she works in Leeds was consistently short staffed. She said overtime shifts were offered every day and night without enough midwives to take them up, and there was a growing fear of mistakes. As the combination of Brexit, Covid and overstretched staff strikes in maternity wards, women and mothers will pay the price. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

US oil spill
California is rushing to prevent an ecological disaster after 126,000 gallons of oil leaked along 13 miles of Pacific coast. The spill, believed to be a breach connected to the Elly oil rig off Huntington Beach, has led to beach closures and damage to protected wetlands. It has also triggered renewed calls to ban offshore drilling in California’s federal waters, already restricted after devastating spills off Santa Barbara. The Hill reports that Democrats in Washington are using the spill to rally support behind an outright ban on offshore drilling; Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion spending plan already includes a proposal to ban drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, who recently survived a recall election, has called for an end to offshore oil drilling in the Golden State by 2045. That seems an awfully long way off.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Petrofac, a British oil and gas multinational that was headed by the Conservative party donor Ayman Asfari, has been fined £70 million after pleading guilty to “systemic” bribery to secure multi-billion pound contracts in the Middle East. A judge ordered the company to pay a further £7 million in legal costs. Its former head of global sales, David Lufkin, pleaded guilty to 14 counts of bribery – seven more counts than the company. He was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended because of his cooperation with the Serious Fraud Office. Lufkin gave investigators extensive details on the firm’s bribery schemes and told them he had acted on the instructions of two senior Petrofac executives, one of whom, Petrofac’s co-founder Maroun Semaan, has since died. The judge ruled that the other executive can’t be identified by the media. Asfari, who has since resigned from Petrofac, was interviewed under caution by the SFO and released without charge. He retains a 19 per cent stake in Petrofac, which he co-founded, making him the largest shareholder. After the sentencing Petrofac’s shares jumped by as much as 17 per cent. The SFO said its investigation is ongoing.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

With additional reporting by Xavier Greenwood.

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood. 

Photographs Getty Images