On Friday, Nov. 13, in the wake of a string of brutal attacks that left 129 people in Paris dead, Facebook did something extremely unusual: It activated its much-hyped “Safety Check.”
“Safety Check” notifications, which let users in disaster zones alert friends and loved ones that they’re safe, have become common sights in the wake of catastrophic typhoons and earthquakes.
But this is the first and only time that Facebook has activated the tool in response to a conflict situation, despite the many conflict situations where it might have been of use.
Facebook did not, for instance, activate Safety Check the day before the Paris attack, when 43 people were killed in a pair of suicide bombings in Beirut. Nor did it activate the tool in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 10, when 102 died at the hands of extremists; nor in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Sept. 20, when bombs at a market and a mosque killed 145; nor on April 1, at Kenya’s Garissa University, when al-Shabab militants killed 147.
Why, demanded some Facebook users, were the Paris attacks the breakthrough event?
“Facebook safety checks are trivial,” said Elie Fares, a popular Lebanese blogger. “[But] they’re indicative of a bigger problem.”
Depending on who you speak to, in fact, Facebook’s selective activation of the Safety Check — and it’s less utilitarian cousin, the solidarity photo filter — indicates one of a whole host of problems. (Facebook, we should point out here, did not respond to requests for comment.)
One of those, Fares argues, is how the West sees countries like his, if it sees them at all: Lebanon has a reputation for violence in the West, he said, which makes distant observers prone to dismiss it. (In a statement, Facebook’s Vice President of Product Growth, Alex Schultz, implied that Safety Check wouldn’t be of much use in places where “there isn’t a clear start or end point” to crises, or where “terrible things happen with distressing frequency.”) That characterization is untrue and unfair, Fares said; Beirut is actually safer than many major cities in the United States.
On top of that, there’s a problem more specific to the tech industry: the unspoken, secondary motivation behind tools like Safety Check. Yes, initiatives like this fill a critical need, leveraging a for-profit platform for social good in a time of crisis. (As anyone with a friend in Paris right now can tell you, Facebook has succeeded with that.) But the tool also serves an important PR function, and it does Facebook no good to deploy it in situations that are messy, drawn-out, under-covered or overtly political — most conflict situations, in other words, in most parts of the world.
In a conversation with The Post in September, a senior official at one international aid group, who was not authorized to speak on the record, sharply criticized companies like Facebook for cherry-picking straightforward, apolitical tragedies that made them look good when they helped.
“That’s fine,” he acknowledged. “But if it’s PR, let’s call it PR. If it’s bulls–t, let’s call it bulls–t.”
Facebook, for its part, is calling the Paris activation a “policy change”: In the future, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised, the company “will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.” Schultz implied that the company will begin activating the tool more frequently in other conflicts.
That’s good news for the millions of people in countries that Facebook has left out of its Safety Check: Turkey, for instance, has an estimated 39 million Facebook users; Nigeria and Kenya, Facebook’s largest African markets, have almost 20 million between them. In Lebanon, where Fares lives, Facebook is used by 35 percent of the population.
“Doing something — anything — to express solidarity can go a long way,” he said by e-mail. “[No], it doesn’t affect policy, but showing that you care about a people, regardless of color/location/religion/etc, can go to great lengths in making sure that people [are] not dehumanized or devalued based on their location, religion, or color.”
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