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WhatsApp and Facebook outage sparks confusion in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
October 5, 2021

Without access to social media, many users felt lost. Their explanations for the technical glitch ranged from wild conspiracy theories to the not-too-far-fetched concern that governments could be blocking the platforms.

A woman operating her cellphone
Image: Eric Boniphace/DW

What would our life be without social media? Many users worldwide got a glimpse of how that would play out when Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp platforms crashed on Monday for about six hours. A massive global outage plunged many services, businesses and the people who rely on them into chaos. It also fueled lively debates on the reasons behind the company's disastrous performance. 

Conspiracy theories

Facebook announced late on Monday that "the root cause of this outage was a faulty configuration change" and that there is "no evidence that user data was compromised as a result." Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used his account to apologize. "Sorry for the disruption," he wrote. "I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about."

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg wears a light-blue tie and a dark-blue suit while sitting rigid
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the outage that affected millions of users Image: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

By that time, users had come up with their own explanations for the unexpected hours in the social platform dark. These ranged from conspiracy theories to governments' forcing the people into silence. Collins Noel Ochieng had no doubt: "I highly suspect that the African billionaires in the Pandora leaks were behind this social media censorship disguised as a network glitch," he posted on DW's Facebook page.

Many thought that their providers were at fault. "I was blaming Airtel in Congo Kinshasa for their poor performance not knowing that it was a global issue", said Ifeanyi Agbodike. Bernardo Xidakwa Nhamirre of Mozambique felt compelled to apologize: "Please excuse me Movitel agents for having insulted you," he wrote on DW's Portuguese Facebook account.

infrographic on facebook users

Losing business

Facebook's near-total dominance of social media became even more visible on Monday. Website monitoring group Downdetector said it was the largest such failure ever recorded, with 10.6 million problem reports globally.

Africans used the alternative platform Ayoba to chat with friends and family. The messaging app from African telecom giant MTN allows users to chat, subscribe to news channels and play games. Ayoba has 5.5 million monthly users. 

For many Africans, it is about much more than communication. In the private sector, companies use Whatsapp to operate marketing and customer service. Angolan Pascoal Beleblanck complained: "It was not a good feeling, I lost business."

People also rely on Whatsapp as their primary source of news and even for public services. South Africans can renew their car licenses through the app. 

infrographic on facebook revenue

Blaming governments

The outage led to a lot of speculation. Some even feared the advent of a total social media ban. In a number of countries, the idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Ethiopia access to social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have been restricted since May.

In October 2020, Tanzania curtailed access during elections. That led Tanzania's Government to fear unrest ensuing from Monday's blackout. It quickly issued a statement, which was posted on Twitter, chief spokesman Gerson Msigwa announced that the country's communications regulator had contacted the US tech giant to understand the cause of the outage.

"The government urges all Tanzanians to remain calm during the outage of these social media platforms. All government services provided online remain available," he added.

Facebook's logo
Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram platforms crashed on Monday because of a faulty configuration change, the company saidImage: Richard Drew/AP/picture alliance

Relationships in jeopardy

In Uganda, Matovi Asad reacted on Facebook after he reconnected: "Seriously, I thought the Ugandan Government had finally found a way to ban social media, because even VPN wasn't helping." 

Monica Mupenzi pointed the finger at the ruler of the country: "In autocratic Uganda they didn't even realize FB was off. The dictator banned it last year."

Clemanthane Attideka DeKpotivi, from Ghana, was more worried about his love life. "And if we file a complaint against Mark, who has sunk millions of business and even my love relationship? It was almost over when my girlfriend came without notice, under the pretext that she had written to me on WhatsApp and I did not see it," he joked.

Some didn't feel that it was a laughing matter. "Given the current state of the world, a day without internet is like a year without rain," said Charles Bazema from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

 WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram icons
Many users worldwide found it hard to deal with the six-hour outage Image: Ercin Erturk/AA/picture alliance

Not everyone was distraught by the outage: "I was happy, because I enjoyed six hours chatting with my neighbors," Lemi Bacha said. Others discovered that they could use their phones for calling friends over phone lines. But the traditional way can be quite expensive, while a phone call or message on Whatsapp or Facebook is free, users noted.

God is in control

"I thought my cellphone malfunctioned. I restarted it more than 50 times," wrote Jacinta Nicolau, from Mozambique. She wasn't the only one. And it angered some users so much that they felt like throwing their cellphones against the wall, they wrote. 

Conspiracy theorists had a field day. "I think that UFOs have played their part in the shutdown," said Sahr Tengbeh's.

There were those who saw God's hand behind the event. Amad Osikhotse wrote: "The time has come for the physical world to understand what God is: He is the controller of each and everything."

Did God hack Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg, at least, said there was no hack at all. It came down to technical problems. His company is said to have lost $7 billion (€6 billion)  as a result of the outage.

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