The Impact of Facebook Safety Check During Terrorist Attacks and Natural Disasters

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By Vlad Vidaeff

November 13, 2015.  Whether you heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris through social media, the news, or a friend, it was a solemn day worldwide.  Many Americans expressed their feelings and support for France through social media.  Facebook allowed users to add a filter to their profile picture in the colors of the French flag and I, along with many of my friends, used the feature.  Another feature that Facebook offered during this time of panic and devastation was the little-used Safety Check tool.  This blog will explore the purpose of the tool as well as the controversy surrounding its use.

Facebook introduced Safety Check in October of 2014.  The main purpose of the tool is to connect with friends and loved ones during a disaster.  If Facebook believes that you are in an affected area during a disaster, the company will send you a notification asking if you are OK.  You then have the option to click ‘I’m safe,’ ‘I’m not in the area,’ or not respond at all.  If you choose to click ‘I’m safe,’ your Facebook friends will receive a notification alerting them of your status.  Your status will not be shared with people outside of your network or with groups outside of Facebook.  At this point, you may be wondering how Facebook knows where you are located.  Facebook determines if you are in an affected area by looking at: 1) the city listed in your profile; 2) your current location if you have given Facebook access to your phone or tablet; and 3) other signals that point to your location like the city where you use the Internet.  This may raise issues of privacy for some but these thoughts are quelled due to the fact that you must take proactive action to use Safety Check.

Prior to Safety Check’s use during the terrorist attacks in Paris, the tool had only been used five times previously.  Furthermore, the instances in which it was used were during natural disasters such as the devastating tsunami in Japan in 2011 as well as earthquakes in Chile, Nepal, and Afghanistan.  Since the terrorist attacks in Paris were the first time that Safety Check has been used for something other than a natural disaster, critics have pounced on Facebook.  Critics have asked why the tool was used in Paris and not other terrorist attacks or violent incidents.  For example, a terrorist attack occurred in Beirut the day before the attacks in France.  Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the criticism with the following statement: “You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world.  Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters.  We just changed this [policy] and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well.”

Putting my two cents in, I applaud Facebook’s efforts.  During my MBA, I had the pleasure of going to school with several French students.  Since we’ve graduated, we have stayed in touch through Facebook.  One of my former classmates, who is currently living in Paris, used Safety Check during the attacks.  I received a notification informing me that she was safe.  This gave me a sense of relief and I know that I would have received the news much later had other mediums been used.  Safety Check is a way to get the word out quickly and efficiently to a large number of people.  I also applaud Zuckerberg’s statement and his plans to increase the use of the feature in the future.  It is an example of social media doing good for the world.  More than four million people marked themselves as ‘safe’ 24 hours after Facebook activated Safety Check.  Think about the number of people who were comforted to receive a notification from Facebook informing them of this important piece of news.


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