Using this important feature for violent instances will end up doing more harm than good
Chaos overtook Paris on Friday night as shell-shocked residents attempted to contact their loved ones, many fearing the worst after the carnage that took nearly 130 lives. In a well intentioned move aimed to help Parisians get the word out that they were safe, Facebook activated their Safety Check feature for the first instance of a man-made emergency.
While the surprise move by Facebook was surely appreciated by those who were able to reach out to their friends and family, the company was quickly hit with criticism for not using the feature in other recent tragedies like the November 12 double bombing in Beirut that killed 40, or the al-Shabab massacre at Garissa University in Kenya that left 147 dead. Accusations ranged from ignoring violence outside of the Western-centric purview to crude racism.
Why don’t we have a “Facebook safety check” for the Ankara or Beirut attacks? Some lives are more worthy than
others. Western lives matter.
— Erkan Bayir (@erkanbayir_EN) November 14, 2015
Is it a PR stunt? Why Facebook’s ‘Safety Check’ deployed in Paris — but not in Beirut, Garissa or Ankara https://t.co/h67ul27DWt
— Sue Zoldak (@SueZoldak) November 17, 2015
Forget why there was no filter for the Lebanese flag. Why was there no safety-check-in notification option for those in Beirut? — Alice Elizabeth (@appletreealice) November 16, 2015
In response, Facebook announced that they would begin to offer the service for other limited cases, without issuing any firm criteria for what would classify as a justifiable use case. Last night they activated it again, this time for an attack in Yola, Nigeria that killed over 30 people.
From a public relations and perhaps even emotional point of view, the expansion of Safety Check makes sense. Facebook would love to be the place where the world turns to in times of emergency, playing yet another key role in our lives.
The storm of unintended consequences that will flood Facebook
But Facebook should have known better than to open Pandora’s Box. Any response to violence, particularly political and ideological violence, will have negative repercussions in the long run.
How does a company judge which cases of human suffering are worthy of coverage? Should the feature be used in active conflict zones? If the feature is used in Paris, should Syrians in ISIS-held Raqqa have received a similar service after the French led reprisal bombings there?
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an evening post announcing that they had made the decision to use the service for the Nigerian attack. He included a section wherein he told readers that his team was, “now working quickly to develop criteria for the new policy and determine when and how this service can be most useful,” adding that events like this “are all too common” and would not be posting about them regularly.
In providing a good and decent public service, Facebook has bitten off far more than it can chew. As if Facebook wasn’t already filled with enough harping on the political injustices and calls for the company to ban this group or that, they have opened themselves up to a never-ending stream of criticism that they cannot win.
Beyond the social or branding issues that Facebook is likely to encounter, there are technical problems that are likely to arise.
Security forces often block cell reception around big gatherings, and might do so to block any additional explosives from being detonated when responding to the scene of an attack. Imagine the hysteria and confusion if people believe that this service will be reliable and then are unable to contact others.
Even if the signal isn’t blocked, the sheer mass of people trying to make calls would likely crash from the weight of use.
Should Facebook bear the weight of responsibility for such an emotionally critical service? Probably not.
With all of their well researched insights, Facebook would do better reserving to natural disasters where there are quantifiable criteria. If an earthquake or hurricane hits an area and is rated as severe, then this is an easy call without all the other more controversial no-win factors.
When it comes to terrorism and human-caused tragedy, emotions can run higher than mother nature, or even Facebook itself.
Featured Image Credit: Facebook