16.11.2015 Safety check and the growing role of social media in disasters

Facebook’s ‘Safety Check’ feature came into its own over the weekend following the tragic events in Paris on Friday night.

The feature works by sending a message to Facebook users located within the vicinity of a disaster; they can then ‘check in’ to mark themselves as safe, providing an update to reassure their family and friends.

First launched in 2011 during Tokyo’s horrific tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed, it has since been applied to a range of natural disasters around the globe,from earthquakes to typhoons.

However, this weekend was the first time Facebook has used the tool during a human disaster for the first time. The social network noticed the increased activity surrounding the unfolding terror attacks in Paris and was moved to aid those caught up in the crisis.

“We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding,” Facebook’s vice president of growth, Alex Schultz, wrote in a post on the site. “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.”

The feature was well received, with many Parisians taking advantage of it to let their friends and loved ones know they were safe.

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Many commentators questioned why Facebook deemed the Paris attacks to be serious enough to utilise Safety Check, but not the Beirut bombings, which had occurred only the day before. Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg responded: “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate SafetyCheck for more human disasters going forward as well.”

It is clear Facebook will have to make moves towards wider global inclusion in terms of reacting to significant events like this in future. Countries in the Middle East are frequently victim to these kinds of attacks and Facebook dominates in the region, boasting almost twice as many users as Twitter.

Too impersonal?

While Facebook is undoubtedly a useful tool to let people know someone is in danger, there are a number of questions that arise. Firstly, would relatives and friends want to find out about the death of a loved one through social media? Surely most people would prefer to be told about the death of someone they care about through a phone call or in person?

What about when people mark themselves as safe, and then find themselves in danger later on? This could mislead friends and relatives into falsely believing the person they care for is safe. If Facebook was to prevent this by resetting the safety check with each new development in a disaster, this could require potentially traumatised users to have to ‘check in’ on multiple occasions.

Facebook acknowledges Safety Check cannot yet be applied to all disasters. An ongoing crisis will not have a clear start and end point, and therefore it is difficult to determine whether someone is ‘safe’. In the past the social network has stated it does not want to use this feature in disasters that do not have a definitive end point, but the Paris attacks set a potentially worrying precedent.

Consideration should also be given as to whether family members of technology-shy users or those who do not regularly use Facebook may be unduly concerned over their lack of response regarding their safety.

A new role?

The use of Safety Check in the aftermath of the Paris attacks marks a new step in the role of social media in unfolding events. Until now it has been mainly relied upon as a source of breaking news and as a platform to share content and opinion.

But as Schultz wrote in a post on the Facebook Safety page: “Communication is critical in moments of crisis, both for the people affected and for those far away who are anxious for news. People already turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates during times like this and we created Safety Check to make these connections even easier.”

Finding out about death through social media, such as through a Facebook notification, is not a new phenomenon but an uncomfortable aspect of modern life, and one we may have to get used to.