Facebook and WhatsApp in India

Facebook and WhatsApp in India

In October 2021, the world was shocked when the hugely popular social media platforms WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram experienced an outage. Interestingly, in places where Facebook functions as the internet itself, the mass outage meant the digital economy was literally crippled.

Think of Amitansu Satpathy's situation. Amitansu lives in India. When the three popular platforms suddenly went down, Amitansu went into a sudden panic. Why? He happens to be the CEO and founder of a company known as Best Power Equipment. His company supplies backup power to institutions like hospitals, factories, offices and restaurants. Hence, Amitansu relies on Whatapp (owned by Facebook) to send quick messages to his employees; this is how he ensures the continued operation of his power equipment company.

Amitansu says: "We often have to rush quickly to any site in case of a problem." The company CEO always gets status updates from the power centre managers after every 30 minutes; of course, the updates reach him through Whatsapp. Since he couldn't afford to wait for the blackout to "resolve," Amitansu made a quick decision: He swiftly transferred all communication between the company executives to Telegram, a rival messaging service. Amitansu was lucky- throughout the blackout, his company didn't encounter any problems with the power stations. But the whole experience served as a huge wake-up call- it exposed the fact that the company was way over-reliant on the giant American social media enterprise.

The impact of Facebook on the the world economy was experienced in many places- including the US. Many people in the US even joked about how the 5-hour blackout prevented them from performing trivial tasks; they discovered they couldn't perform these without access to Instagram and Facebook.

As noted, in parts of Asia (including India), the recent blackout took a completely different trajectory. Like most Asian countries, Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp generally dominate people's digital lives in India. The platform's social messaging features sometimes function as the only instrument most people and businesses can use in daily communication.

Think of it: India alone is estimated to have more than 340 million Facebook users. The number of Whatsapp users goes to well over 500 million. Overall, Facebook alone has almost 1.3 billion users who reside in the South Pacific region. This constitutes 40% of Facebook's total users globally. Moreover, it's more than twice the combined number of Facebook users who live in the US and Europe. Further, at least 346 million people daily access Facebook's various platforms. This data shows clearly that in many places worldwide, "Facebook's ecosystem" has gradually become synonymous with the stature of the internet itself.

Mr. Ross Tapsell, who teaches at the Australia National University College of Asia and the Pacific, sums it up this way: "In most South East Asian communities, Facebook is actually the internet itself. A quick check reveals that whenever most people in these regions connect to the internet, they almost always connect to Facebook and Whatsapp.

This situation was initially fostered in the South East Asian region in the mid-2010s when the popularity of Facebook skyrocketed. Overall, "The internet infrastructure and data sophistication was less developed at this time," says Singapore National University professor of communications Jack Linchuan. On its part, the designers of Whatsapp built it to work well in low data environments. Facebook came up with a Free Basics Service to complement this. Eventually, this resulted in a Facebook-curated internet version. The version included the Facebook app. This came to dominate the internet's face in countries like Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. Further, Facebook later partnered up with some Asian telecom companies (including KaiOS and a few other Indian Android phone makers). The companies helped to preinstall Facebook apps on new phones.

Fortunately, the unprecedented 5-hour Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp blackout happened while most people in the Asian continent were asleep. This is why it wasn't as disruptive as potentially possible. Many business executives (like Amitansu mentioned earlier) quickly got into a crisis mode to talk to customers and employees. They did this to try and keep their core operations humming. As noted, many entrepreneurs- just like Amitansu- admitted that the colossal blackout shook them out of a stupor; they confessed that their businesses unduly relied on Facebook's enormous power and that the entity wields "unhealthy influence" over the livelihoods of millions of people. They realized it's wise to seek alternatives to the hugely dominating international social network systems.