Facebook’s Safety Check: Newfound Global Responsibility

I had intended to blog about the rise of email newsletters like ‘the Skimm’ and ‘Lenny Letter’ and counteract Phil Simon’s (author of “Message Not Received”) claim that “email is killing us.” It was Friday, late afternoon, and I was reading current articles and blogs on the triumphant return of the email newsletter, when #Paris started trending on Twitter.

For the next 8 hours, I was enraptured in this global conversation and updates about the terror, fear and attacks, which were occurring real time in Paris. Throughout the course of my Friday night, I found myself scrolling through my Twitter feed, shocked and overwhelmed by the steady flow of terrifying, incomplete, information flooding in. It was the first time in my life I was using social media to uncover events real time at unprecedented depth and speed. As highlighted already in some class blog posts, Facebook and Twitter social features allowed people all around the world to track and discuss the violent attacks. We were all there, in these moments together, as the night’s events unfolded.

This act of terror will certainly be the topic of traditional and social news for the next few weeks – including our own #IS6621 Twitter feed and blog – as the world copes, and global leaders attempt to addresses international threats of terror. Given the gravity of this attack, and how social media played such a major role throughout the night, it felt almost wrong to continue writing about my initial blog idea, and not acknowledge the horrific #ParisAttacks and the world’s reaction both in the physical and digital space two nights ago. LuyuanJohn and Hunter discussed at a high level, the various ways social media was used throughout the night and I thought I would dive further into Facebook’s activation of, and future implications for, the Safety Check feature.

Safety Check was first inspired during Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and was ultimately introduced in October of 2014. Facebook’s statement at the launch somewhat nebulously identified the feature as something to be used in times of “disaster.” The feature was first activated following the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, and has since been used for other natural disasters including earthquakes in Chile, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Tropical Cyclones in the South Pacific and Typhoons in the Philippines. Facebook’s Safety Check was initially intended for information and status sharing following natural disasters.

But as we have learned, social media platforms and functionalities are constantly innovating and expanding, to continually connect, inform and change our global society. Just hours after the attacks began, Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team activated the Safety Check feature again. This was the first time since inception that this tool had been used outside of a natural disaster setting.

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On a social media platform that connects over 1.5 Billion people and has such massive reach, Safety Check feature is now one of the quickest and most efficient ways to report your status and let your vast network of family and friends know you are safe following a time of chaos and uncertainty. Since Friday night, 4.1 million people have marked themselves safe using this feature. Without a doubt, Safety Check is a remarkably powerful and impressive feature. As Slate writer, Lily Hay Newamn expresses:

The profound reassurance people get from the service is, to my mind, exactly what will push Safety Check toward ubiquity. And that means Facebook will take on a profound responsibility.

And as the Paris attacks show, Safety Check is now a valuable feature for a much broader range of crisis situations. This fact alone then begs many questions:

When will this feature be activated going forward? What circumstances now account for a “disaster”?  What is the scope of a “human disaster”?  Should this feature just be activated for short term, isolated acts of terror?  Are there certain “human disasters” that perhaps don’t qualify? How does Facebook ensure no community is left out? Or, are certain communities of people and countries bound to be left out?

Since Facebook manually activates Safety Check, there is undoubtedly some level of human discretion involved in deciding when a given disaster requires this activation.

Just a day before the attacks in Paris, terror struck Beirut, Lebanon. Many Lebanese and others on social media began to question why this Safety Check feature was not initiated in the wake of Beirut’s terror attack. Recognizing the outcry from other nations, asking where there Safety Check was, Mark expressed Saturday night:

Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places. Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well. Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions and concerns about this. You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world. We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.

The Paris attacks certainly mark an expansion of Safety Check beyond natural disasters, and now Facebook’s “Social Good” team bears significant, newfound global responsibility in determining when and where they will offer this profound service to help the global Facebook community in a time of crisis.

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10 comments

  1. Laura, thank you for this great post. It is really fascinating to see how much social media is evolving and changing and making our lives better these days. Just like you, over the past few days I was constantly on Twitter and Fb keeping up with my family and friends both in Paris, and in Beirut my hometown. I was one of the people questioning the mark safe feature too. But after Zukerberg’s announcement, I would like to see how this feature is going to develop. Fb has moved this option from a natural disaster to apply it to human disasters now. It is everything you need, in time of panic and stress when you are looking to know just one thing about your loved ones. Just like Paris, Beirut too needs this global support. The flag option applies too. Fb first offered the French flag profile picture update but after few complaints too, you can now update your profile picture to the Lebanese flag. I think this has been many people’s most active week on Social Media. Thanks for sharing this post! Good job!

    1. Hi @hobballa, thats great to hear the Lebanese flag is now an option. I had not noticed this added feature until you brought it to my attention. While some people argue the option to change your flag is silly and “does not fight terror”, I think it does highlight how important it is for Facebook to try their best not to alienate certain communities – even if it is a flag filter to show support and solidarity for a country.

  2. Great post, I think the safety check is a great idea. For those of us worrying about family/friends in countries affected by these terrible tragedies, it gives a small sense of relief that your loved ones are okay. Especially during times like these when cell service isn’t working. When the marathon bombings hit in Boston, it was a matter of minutes until I had zero service and couldn’t make a phone call or send a tweet, same for those I was with. My parents could have bennefited from a message saying I am okay.

    I forsee other companies taking on this new innovation. If ATT was able to send you a text asking Y/N are you okay and send it to a list of people you have previously specified, it would be brilliant!

    1. Hi @handhandhand, yes Safety Check would have been a very powerful and useful feature in 2013 during the Boston Bombings. However, you raise a good point about needing service or wifi to use this feature. In times of chaos and disaster, both are often limited. @nayyarp12 shared more insight saying service providers require individuals to be able to call 911 but this doesn’t allow our families and friends to know we are okay. It will be interesting to see how different players – social and traditional communication providers – get involved in offering more advanced safety features in the future.

  3. I’m glad you brought up the terrorism in Beirut, and I appreciated the statement you provided from Zuckerberg that I hadn’t seen yet. Many people on my timeline were appalled at Facebook’s support of only the people in Paris and not those in Lebanon this week or in Kenya after the school shooting last April. The West is often criticized for selective grief, with major media outlets only reporting on issues in Western countries. As an influential social site, Facebook has the ability and the duty to break this cycle and support humans around the world. I appreciate the Safety Check feature and the ability to change your profile picture to show support, but I hope Facebook will do more in the future to stand in solidarity with all who are in need, not just those closest to America.

  4. Great post Laura! I agree that Facebook is taking a great step in this direction. With the rising number of incidences around the world and the fact that almost all of us know people in places where we can’t always connect during such disasters, this would be a great tool to assuage the fears of the concerned friends and family. I’ve actually been in a situation where I marked myself safe in a natural disaster back in India and it was amazing that even my mom, who isn’t very tech savvy got my safe notification before she had called to check for my well being. This is because sometimes the news of events takes much longer on regular media than on social media and Facebook for some reason was already anticipating it. Jessica (@handhandhand) brought up a great point that we might not all have internet access during such situations, but the govt. legally mandates that service providers allow any consumer, no matter who’s customer they are, to make 911 calls. I think that system can be leveraged by AT&T, Verizon etc to help the people in such disasters.

  5. @nayyarp12 thank you for sharing your experiences with Safety Check in India. You mom must have been so relieved to know you were safe. At its essence the question, “are you safe?” is very personal and it just amazes me the powerful role Facebook plays in reassuring our family and friends we are okay.

  6. My roommates and I were actually having a debate about this safety feature on Saturday. They argued that the public should be wary not just of this feature but Facebook’s social media reporting in general. One major point (which has since received plenty of coverage) is that these features display a pro-Western bias to the extent that other cultures are devalued. We all agreed that how Facebook determines what type of event is worthy of a safety check is entirely subjective. Why did they wait for an attack in Paris to role out this feature? In the future, what will be the line for how Facebook determines which types of events to publicize?

    One of my roommates and I defended the feature more so on the basis that it highlights our personal connections. Most of us will not receive notifications from other “human disasters” because we we have no personal connections there (this is arguably another problem), whereas we have made friends or know people traveling in Paris. I agree that there is a lot to be said about how we stand in solidarity with the French over other parts of the world, but I don’t see this particular feature as the problem.

  7. Thanks for sharing. As soon as Facebook activated Safety Check, I noticed that many people welcomed the move by FB but others were irate. Many people were upset that Facebook activated Safety Check for the Paris attacks and not for the attacks in Beirut, Garissa or Ankara. Many folks commented that Facebook is showing that some lives matter more than others.Facebook did activate the Safety Check in light of a recent attack in Nigeria. Did the online outcry pushed Facebook to activate the Safety Check for Nigeria? Or will the activation of the Safety Check feature become standard practice by Facebook? In your blog you mentioned that the actual activation of the Safety Check is manual and this is left to the discretion of individual(s). When considering that Facebook has about 1.5 billion users, do you think that the activation process will become automated in light of natural disasters or acts of terror?

  8. I’m a little late to this but really good blog. These are interesting issues for the new titans of the industry.

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