Things That Matter

The Recent Facebook Outage Had Even Bigger Consequences Across Latin America

For most people, the recent Facebook outage—which took down Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp as well —was little more than a temporary annoyance. One has to look no further than the many viral memes than to see it was mostly seen as a nuisance that would soon pass.

But the outage had far more serious consequences for the millions of WhatsApp users located in Latin America, where messaging apps have been deeply ingrained in day-to-day life.

From healthcare to government services, WhatsApp is king.

For many people, WhatsApp is little more than a platform where we get a warm buenos días GIF or prayer messages from our tías. It’s also become a hotbed for misinformation in the Latino community, particularly around the pandemic and politics. But for millions of people across Latin America, it’s a lifeline to the digital world.

While most in the U.S., use a native messaging app to get things done (like iMessage), in Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America, WhatsApp is the default messaging app. Here in Mexico, I use it daily to communicate. Want to make a restaurant reservation? WhatsApp. Need a confirmation code for your bank? WhatsApp. Waiting for test results from your doctor? WhatsApp.

In fact, according to the 2020 Social Media User Trends Report, 93 percent of those aged 16-64 in Argentina use WhatsApp, as well as 92 percent of Colombians, and 91 percent of people in Brazil. Those numbers are staggeringly high.

So, when it went down you can imagine the chaos that ensued.

Once the outage hit, many doctors were left unable to share images and results with patients or even coordinate schedules. Some small-business owners were left without a way to manage day-to-day operations as all business communications are conducted through the app. Friends here rely heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp for updates from the government regarding local elections and also Covid-19 vaccination information—that flow of information completely stopped.

Perhaps most important, was the flow of remittances. Many friends rely on WhatsApp to receive confirmation codes in order to pick up money sent from family in the United States. Without access to the app, many were forced to wait in lines at places like Western Union.

The response from experts and politicians has been swift.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a statement saying that one large company shouldn’t have so much control over our access to the Internet, and called for Facebook to be broken up and regulated.

“It’s almost as if Facebook’s monopolistic mission to either own, copy, or destroy any competing platform has incredibly destructive effects on free society and democracy,” AOC tweeted.

“Remember: WhatsApp wasn’t created by Facebook. It was an independent success. FB got scared & bought it.”

Many people who conduct business on social media were also scrambling for new ways to manage their business.

When it comes to small businesses, so many people rely on a network of tools owned and operated by Facebook: from Instagram’s Storefront to Facebook’s Marketplace. So when the outage hit, many realized they’re truly at the mercy of the tech giant. And after losing out on sales for basically an entire day, many are reexamining the way they do business.

One such company, Crafted by Alex, owned by Alex Rankin, relies entirely on the network of platforms to make money. But in an interview with Buzzfeed News, Rankin said she was reevaluating her strategy.

“I plan to have my own website soon so people can order off that,” Rankin said. “I cannot control Instagram.”

Although there is no official figure on the financial impact of the outage, early estimates say that the losses amount to at least $100 million.

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