The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Much of the world relies on WhatsApp. Its outage ground their virtual lives to a halt.

Indian women in Mumbai use their phones. The South Asian country is WhatsApp's largest market by number of users. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

When WhatsApp and other Facebook-owned apps went dark around 11:40 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, online tracker Downdetector received some 14 million reports of the outage.

The services gradually came back online in the evening. But for tens of millions of people worldwide whose personal and professional lives play out on WhatsApp, the instant messaging app’s blackout was more than a mere inconvenience.

WhatsApp has emerged as a popular alternative to text messages, especially in developing nations where telecommunications services can be prohibitively expensive. But it is more than just a messaging platform: In Lebanon, for instance, coronavirus tests can be ordered — and results received — via WhatsApp. A Philippine diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates operates a WhatsApp hotline to communicate with its citizens in that country. And users in Brazil can use an in-app business directory to search for thousands of food and retail providers.

According to the Global Web Index’s 2020 Social Media User Trends Report, in seven countries — including Kenya, Malaysia and Colombia — more than 90 percent of those ages 16 to 64 are monthly WhatsApp users.

Maritza L. Félix, the Phoenix-based founder of Conecta Arizona, a Spanish-language news provider on WhatsApp that is read by Hispanic immigrant families, said that many in her audience felt that the outage was akin to having one’s umbilical cord severed.

“WhatsApp is the messaging platform that my community prefers,” Félix said in an interview. “We use WhatsApp for business, pleasure, [family] … even to fall in love.”

After the service came back online, some subscribers to Félix’s group wrote that they “felt afraid and lonely” as they traveled across the U.S.-Mexico border during the outage. Conecta Arizona offers information including border-crossing schedules and traffic reports.

The app’s centrality has been underscored during the coronavirus pandemic. The city government of Buenos Aires runs a chatbot that helps connect people with medical professionals if they report covid-19 symptoms. In April 2020, the Lebanese public health ministry launched an automated WhatsApp chatbot service to provide updates on the coronavirus situation in the country.

More than four in five adults in Lebanon use WhatsApp, according to a Pew Research Center survey, making the app the most-used platform in a country facing severe economic strain.

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When Beirut tried to levy a charge on calls made through WhatsApp in 2019, protesters took to the streets and clashed with security forces. The policy was retracted hours after what was reportedly one of the largest demonstrations that Lebanon had witnessed in years. Shortly into Monday’s outage, the country’s telecommunications minister clarified that the service disruption was not caused by his agency, according to local media.

The Tanzanian government’s chief spokesperson posted a video on Twitter urging citizens to “remain calm” during the blackout, adding that “all other government services provided online are still available.”

In India, WhatsApp’s largest market by number of users, many people turned to other services after being unable to access the platform late Monday. Surbhi Bharadwaj, a consultant from New Delhi, reached her brother via Apple’s FaceTime service. Her mother decided to use Signal, a WhatsApp competitor known for its encryption controls.

Signal said in a tweet that it had signed up “millions” of new users during the WhatsApp outage, while noting some problems of its own that it was attempting to fix.

Facebook’s technology chief, Mike Schroepfer, attributed the outage to “networking issues” and offered his apologies “to every small and large business, family, and individual who depends on” the company’s services.

The tech company said in a statement that the outage was caused by “configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic” between Facebook’s data centers. It stressed that it did not believe that user data was compromised as a result of the service disruption.

Rachel Lerman in San Francisco and Sammy Westfall in Washington contributed to this report.