In countries where Facebook is the Internet, the mass outage crippled the digital economy

October 6, 2021, 1:38 PM UTC

When Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went out for five hours on Monday night, Amitansu Satpathy panicked.

Satpathy is the founder and CEO of Best Power Equipments India, a company that supplies backup power to hospitals, offices, restaurants, and factories. He depends on the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp to communicate with his employees to ensure that his power equipment continues to function.

“If there is a problem at any site we have to rush there immediately,” Satpathy says. He gets status updates from managers at his power centers every half hour via WhatsApp. Satpathy said he could not afford to wait out the blackout, and he transferred all communications between Best Power executives to messaging service Telegram. He says he got lucky; his company did not experience problems with power stations during the blackout, but the experience exposed just how reliant his company is on the American social media giant.

In the U.S., the Facebook blackout quickly turned into a meme, with online commenters and influencers joking about the trivial tasks they could no longer accomplish without access to Facebook and Instagram. But in parts of Asia, the blackout took a different kind of toll. In countries like India, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp dominate digital life, and their features are sometimes the only tools people and businesses use to communicate. 

India alone has an estimated 340 million Facebook users and another 500 million WhatsApp users. In total, Facebook has nearly 1.3 billion users in the Asia-Pacific region, making up 40% of the company’s total user base and more than double the number of users in the U.S. and Europe combined. In Southeast Asia, an estimated 346 million people access the flagship Facebook platform every day.

In many places, Facebook’s ecosystem has become synonymous with the Internet itself. 

“Facebook is the Internet in a lot of communities in Southeast Asia,” says Ross Tapsell, a senior lecturer at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “Use of the Internet is really just Facebook and WhatsApp.”

Facebook soared in popularity in Southeast Asia in the mid-2010s when data and Internet infrastructure was less developed, says Jack Linchuan Qiu, a communications professor at the National University of Singapore. WhatsApp was built to operate in low-data environments and Facebook offered a Free Basics service, which gave a Facebook-curated version of the Internet—including Facebook’s own app—to users in markets like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Facebook has also partnered with Asian phone companies, like KaiOS and other Android-phone makers in India, to preinstall its apps on new phones.

Facebook’s five-hour blackout occurred while much of Asia was asleep, so it wasn’t as disruptive as it could have been. But business owners like Satpathy and likely millions of others entered crisis mode to talk to employees and customers and to keep their operations humming. Now some entrepreneurs say the outage woke them up to the enormous power Facebook has over their livelihoods and sent them looking for alternatives to the social network’s platforms.

Facebook: the business platform

Supul Muhandiram, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, relies on both Facebook and Instagram to sell his wellness and personal care products because there are few alternatives. “In Sri Lanka, we don’t have any other solid platforms that people trust to sell and buy products,” he says. 

Sri Lanka, a country of 21.9 million people, has 7.6 million Facebook users and nearly 1 million Instagram users. Facebook has become ubiquitous in the island country—not only as a social media site for life updates but also as a necessary tool for small-business owners.

Muhandiram is the founder and co-CEO of Ayuva Wellness, which sells high-end toiletries like hair care and lotion through Instagram. Ayuva sells products around the clock, and Muhandiram estimates that 25% of daily Instagram sales were lost on Monday.

Muhandiram says his herbal medicine store, which relies on Facebook for sales, fared better; he estimates it lost only 15% of daily sales due to the outage. But his companies were unable to respond to the customer queries it fields through Facebook—an important means of interacting with customers. Plus, the outage meant that “we had to spend money [on Facebook ads] without making money, and it was something beyond our control,” says Muhandiram. “If an outage can affect your business like that, you feel helpless. You realize that solely relying on an online medium isn’t really a good idea.” 

Alternative platforms, though they exist, haven’t yet taken off in Sri Lanka. E-commerce sites like Etsy and Shopify have “certain restrictions that make it difficult for business owners to move their products, and require a learning curve—for both the business owner and the customer,” says Bhagya Iddamalgoda, founder of Candle House Ceylon, based in Colombo, which sells hand-poured scented candles on Facebook and Instagram. “But Facebook and Instagram, everyone in Sri Lanka is already familiar with them,” she says. The platforms account for over 60% of her company’s sales.

WhatsApp is universal

In India, many firms initially mistook the Facebook blackout for a local problem.

Sanjay Singhal, the 62-year-old founder of Kreative Impact, a firm that specializes in brand merchandising, struggled to download an image of the official Indian emblem sent via WhatsApp by the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which wanted mementos made for a state dinner.

“I then tried to get the image over Facebook, but was unable to get it even over there,” Singhal says. He thought it was a problem with his Internet connection. “Finally, I called my son, and he told me about the global outage,” Singhal says.

Singhal, who was fielding frequent calls about the order, finally told his clients to hold off.

Entrepreneurs and small businesses in India have been using Facebook and Instagram’s messaging platform for years to sell their products, and their reliance only grew during the pandemic when lockdowns made in-person transactions impossible. They showcase their products on Facebook and Instagram and use WhatsApp to coordinate sourcing and deliveries.

Sweta Patra, founder at an Internet-based retailer of ethnic clothes called Ethnics Land, said she was unable to coordinate with her vendors during the outage.

“All of a sudden we stopped getting messages. It was only after half an hour that we realized there was a bigger problem and it was not a local outage,” Patra said. “We kept on trying to connect with everybody till about 1 o’clock in the morning before we gave up and went off to sleep.”

The disruption would have been worse had it occurred in the morning.

Indians usually flood WhatsApp chat groups with “good morning” messages, and many executives begin the day with a meeting on the platform to set the day’s agenda. The WhatsApp Business app, which has over 15 million users in India, allows small businesses and startups to connect with customers and sell to them directly.

Brick-and-mortar firms have moved to sell over the platform during the pandemic. Food delivery companies like BigBasket and digital pharmacy Raksha Health now use the social media platforms for their business communications.

Sanjay Kaushik, managing director at cybersecurity firm Netrika Consultants, says the outage revealed the risks of depending on WhatsApp for so many facets of business.

“Some people want to get rid of WhatsApp, but they can’t because the product is so successful that it has become an essential part of business in India,” he says. 

In the Philippines, Facebook and Instagram are the largest platforms for live-streaming e-commerce, a booming industry in the country, says Robert Gantuangco, general manager of TechCellar, a digital services firm for small businesses. Live streamers in particular got burned by the blackout because they often stream at night, Gantuangco says. The outage was a major strike against the platforms. 

“TikTok is the new frontier for sellers,” he says.  

Facebook’s dominance in the region was already under threat, even before the outage, says Qiu. Now that mobile infrastructure has improved in Southeast Asia and more competitors like messaging service Line and TikTok exist, Facebook is more vulnerable to losing users if its services malfunction, he says.

“I think this outage is a wake-up call,” Qiu says. “Facebook cannot continue to extract people’s data and make money from it without fulfilling its social responsibility of basic connectivity.”

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