Facebook's 'Safety Check'
We’re all familiar with how social media has revolutionised our modern world, but as the globe reels from recent atrocities and a national state of emergency and mourning has been declared in France following the Paris attacks, a new and innovative usage has emerged to help those directly affected, but it’s not without controversy.
On the 15th October 2015 Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO & Co Founder of Facebook, announced the launch of ‘Safety Check’ to help people verify their family and friends are safe when a crisis or disaster strikes . The 2011 tsunami and earthquake in north-eastern Japan which took almost 16,000 lives and affected more than 12.5 million people sparked the original inspiration for the development of the social media tool. Facebook engineers in Japan built a ‘Disaster Message Board’ to connect individuals, to which the response was overwhelming, this paved the way for the most recent development, the ‘Safety Check’.
The tool can be activated by Facebook after a major incident, like it was for the first time in its current form on 13th November 2015 in relation to the Paris attacks. It analyses the recorded profile cities of users and details of their recent internet location to issue a phone notification to those who may be in the relevant location to check if they are safe and help reassure amongst chaos. Of course the caveat to that is it’s dependent upon people seeing it and having access to their phone, although people can also mark friends as safe. In addition it collates a notification record to those in your friend group to tell you the ‘safety’ status of your connections who may be impacted.
However Facebook is facing a heated backlash for not having activated the social media tool in relation to the bombings in Beirut the day before, which claimed 43 lives and injured 200. Prior to the Paris incidents it had only been deployed in relation to natural disasters (the earthquakes in Afghanistan, Chile and Nepal, Tropical Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific and Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines) since October last year. In a blog post, Alex Schultz, Facebook’s Vice President of Growth wrote ‘In the case of natural disasters, we apply a set of criteria that includes the scope, scale and impact. During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn't a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it's impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.” He later continued, ‘We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones. We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was still a need that we could fill. So we made the decision to try something we've never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.’
Facebook confirmed 4.1 million people used the ‘Safety Check’ feature within 24 hours of the Paris attacks and it enabled an option for users to temporarily overlay their profile picture with the colors of the French flag. There was no such provision for Beirut, it feels neglected by the world as Lebanon did not receive the same global outpouring of sympathy . The same could be said for Kenya (and other countries) who’s plight has been brought further into the limelight by social media in the wake of the Paris attacks. Despite 147 people being killed at Garissa University in April this year, it wasn’t until the day after the Paris tragedies, when is became the most read story on BBC News website . Facebook plans to use the ‘safety check’ more widely going forward , but when it is implemented exactly will no doubt continue to be a source of debate.
We will continue to watch the digital space to see what savvy developments and creations are in store for us and how such social media platforms get used in the future. In our fractured and fragile world however phenomenal technology is it can never truly counterbalance that, but hopefully it can prove an invaluable asset due to its impact, reach and time efficiency when used correctly under such circumstances.