You may or may not have heard of Facebook Safety Check prior to the attacks in Paris. This feature was first available in 2014 and has been activated a number of times by Facebook for natural disasters. The first time Safety Check was used by Facebook was at the earthquake in Nepal. Since then it has been used several other times for natural disasters all over the world. However, the attack in Paris was the first time Facebook used it for an act of terrorism.
The Facebook Safety Check feature is not visible to users under normal conditions. Instead, it must be activated by Facebook. In case of a natural disaster, and now a widespread terrorist attack, Facebook detects users who have activated their location services for Facebook. In addition, they can detect location by the city in your profile and other factors such as the location of the Internet service you access. If you are in the affected area, you will receive a notice from Facebook asking if you are safe. If you are safe, simply click the button “I’m Safe.” Your friends and family will be able to see that you are safe. Follow this link to read more about this feature and see several screen shot examples.
Few would argue that Safety Check is not an important and useful feature for Facebook users. Unfortunately, one of the most controversial aspects of Safety Check is when to activate it. Someone at Facebook has to make the decision to turn it on, which is when the controversy begins. Facebook activated its Safety Check for Paris but has been strongly criticized for not activating it for an attack in Beirut, Lebanon the day before or the attack in Mali several days afterward.
In Facebook’s defense, the Paris attack was the first time they activated this feature for anything other than a natural disaster. I don’t believe they had any ill intent in their choice. In addition, I believe there either has to be strict guidelines about when this feature is used or it has to be turned on for just about any incident in the world.
The attack in Paris was one of the most organized and horrific terrorist attacks in recent memory. It was coordinated across multiple targets with multiple, heavily armed offenders that used small arms as well as explosives to terrorize the city. Paris also happens to be an international travel destination for people from all over the world.
The Beirut and Mali attacks, on the other hand, had fewer attackers and was limited to a specific location. The Beirut attack happened and it was over quickly while the Mail attack lasted much longer. In the end, both of these incidents had far less impact and reach than the Paris attack. Facebook has put themselves in a difficult position. They defended their actions in the aftermath of the incident and argued that they are still trying to decide the best way to deploy the feature.
Facebook has over 1 billion worldwide users and their Safety Check feature can provide wide notification coverage for critical incidents, which benefit all of society. Although there will definitely be some growing pains, the overall benefits make this important feature a keeper.
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