Facebook created its ‘safety check’ feature to help people affected by natural disasters. The service was used for the first time to check in as safe after the terrorist attacks on Friday, November 13, 2015, in Paris. Several other apps and tools were also activated to help those caught up in the attack, while Uber changed its car sharing app in a show of support.
The Safety Check service on Facebook enabled those caught up in Paris after the terrorist incident to tell their loved ones that they were safe from harm. In a statement, the social networking giant declared that they would also be using it more widely. This was after it came under significant criticism because a terrorist attack took place in Beirut the day before the Paris attack, but it was not activated for the people caught up in those atrocities. In fact, the global media is querying why Beirut is not receiving the same level of international attention.
On Thursday evening, two ISIS operatives, whose identities are still unknown, exploded themselves in a crowded marketplace in the Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood of Beirut, killing 44 and injuring more than 200 others in the worst terrorist attack the city has seen in years.
Facebook has come under further criticism, because they instantly added a ‘tricolore’ (the French flag) filter to profile pictures, but none were made available for the many other countries where atrocities had been committed. While people have been appreciative of the fact that Facebook has done something to show solidarity with a world that seems to be at war, many feel that their current actions are too selective and that this could actually lead to further division.
Meanwhile, even Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive of Facebook, explained that it is a learning curve for them as well and that they were essentially doing the best they could when an unprecedented emergency like the events across the world over the past week occur.
Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places. 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. Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions and concerns about this. You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world. We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.
This was further detailed by the vice president of growth at Facebook, Alex Schultz.
We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.
The Safety Check feature has been designed to ensure people are able to make contact with their friends and family in order to reassure them that they are safe. This is just one part of the efforts the company is making to be able to deliver emergency response tools as well.
Twitter saw a huge increase in active usage after the Paris events as well. A number of hashtags started to circulate to offer help. #PorteOuverte, French for ‘open door’, was being circulated by people who were opening their homes to those who had been left stranded after the attack, giving them shelter. Additionally, a hashtag #TerrorismHasNoReligion started to circulate that included messages of support. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou, initially released after the terror attacks in Australia, also started to resurface. The #TerrorismHasNoReligion continues to be a trending hashtag, several days after the actual attack.
Facebook, meanwhile, added a filter that enabled people to temporarily change their Facebook profile picture to one containing the tricolore. However, some people quickly took offense to this, stating once again that it seems to forget the various other attacks that have taken place around the world. In fact, some feel that the flag filter has actually divided the world.
The new Facebook feature has turned grief into an ugly competition of mourning between countries that share the same enemy. Commemorating tragedy in one particular region or country is greatly unfair to people suffering similar atrocities and massacres in other parts of the globe. At a time when people all over the world are feeling vulnerable, the introduction of such divisive tools on an online platform which exerts considerable influence on the masses is not just unnecessary, it’s nonsensical.
Clearly, the platform is under significant criticism and scrutiny and it seems that they may indeed have engaged in some well-intended knee-jerk reactions that have angered a number of people around the world. In fact, the number of posts about the flag filter is almost as high as the number of posts about the attacks themselves.
Meanwhile, the police also became involved in social media, spreading pictures of attackers and accomplices in the hopes of apprehending them. Most of the world, in fact, found out about the events through social media itself.
Facebook wasn’t the only company that tried to do something to help. Skype, Google’s Hangouts and a number of other mobile phone providers offered people in this country free telephone calls to Paris and to some other parts of the world, thereby ensuring people can properly coordinate and have good points of contact.
As stated earlier, Uber made some changes in solidarity as well. They switched their surge pricing system off so that, if there are very few drivers available, the price for a journey wouldn’t go up. This was implemented across all of France within half an hour of the events taking place.
Additionally, Airbnb, a short term letting service, cancelled its conference in Paris and immediately asked that all users in Paris open their homes to people affected by the attacks. All service charges were wavered and they helped bring those needing shelter to get in contact with those offering it.
While there are certainly lessons to be learned from how this particular attack was managed, it also shows that technology now plays a hugely important role in disaster and emergency response.