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. Luyuan, John 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.
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.