In the hours after Paris experienced a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, a number of social-based technologies reached out to help survivors and those who cared about them.
AirBnB and Twitter helped find shelter for those dislocated, communication services such as Skype, Sprint, and Verizon provided free calls, and Uber relaxed its pricing. Among the most discussed of these efforts, though, was Facebook’s Safety Check feature.
The company activated its year-old feature, which prompts those physically in a disaster area to answer the question, “Are you safe?” While the activation was likely altruistic and useful to users (within 24 hours of the attacks 4.1 million had checked in as safe, while another 360 million users received notices their friends were okay) it also spawned a rash of speculation about the ethics and application of the service.
Chief among reasons for that is the fact that it was the first time it had been activated for a manmade hazard.
Before the Paris attacks, Safety Check had only been activated five times—three times for large-scale earthquakes such as the one in Nepal, once for Cyclone Pam, and once for Typhoon Ruby. The Paris attack activation immediately drew criticism from detractors who asked why Paris, when a day earlier 80 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Beirut. The insinuation was Facebook cared more about European lives than those in the Middle East.
“Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places,” Reuters quoted Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg as stating on his official account. “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.”
True to their word, the social network turned the alert on just days later when a bombing in the Nigerian city of Yola killed 32 and injured 80. But that in turn brought up more questions—namely, in a world plagued by daily terrorism, what is deemed worthy of alert activation?
Many pundits and tech experts have asked Facebook this directly, and no answers have been forthcoming. That has led to even more speculation about the feature’s usefulness if applied inconsistently.
User inconsistency already poses some issues. While a safe check-in can provide reassurance to friends and families, a lack of check-in is less meaningful. Users who choose to ignore the prompt or have access issues will leave friends guessing about their status. Those with location services turned off won’t even get the prompt.
While tech experts have pointed out that this lack of information is unlikely to cause panic, others wonder about the deeper implication of the messages, especially when used for terrorist attacks.
“On the one hand, maybe it’s the sole piece of information you need to know after a major attack: ‘The people you love are safe. You may pay attention to other horrors than these,’” wrote Meyer Robinson in the Atlantic. “Or maybe it reinforces terror’s message, forcing you to look at the faces of friends who were never endangered in the first place, reminding you ceaselessly of the dozens of people who could have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time—but were not. It recreates the fearful shockwave that terrorism seeks to create.”
Unwittingly reinforcing terrorism is another concern experts have about the Facebook service (and social technology in general). There’s worry that that terrorist could use the information to monitor and increase the chaos they seek to generate.
Still, even normal uses of these media can be appropriated and we know that crowdsourcing, social media monitoring, and crisis mapping benefits emergency agencies and relief organizations, as well.
In the end, there’s still a lot to learn about what effect services such as Facebook’s Safety Check will have on how people communicate in disaster—and what it means to put such important communication in the hands of what many view as an entertainment outlet. Perhaps, as technologist Lily Hay Newman argues, it’s time for us to begin to take social media more seriously.
“The question of how these services will evolve shouldn’t imply that they’re not worthwhile,” she wrote in Slate’s Future Tense Blog. “In fact, it is their value that makes exploring their implications so important. Our status updates may feel like tiny, ephemeral acts, but when it comes to these particular notifications, we should be aware of their gravity: They're literally updates on life and death.”