Social networks are one of the first places people turn to for updates in the wake of tragedies. But Safety Check, a much touted Facebook tool designed to make it easier to tell friends and family members you're okay during a crisis, was not deployed after an apparent terror attack struck the capitol of one of Facebook's largest markets Thursday.
Jakarta, Indonesia, was rocked by militants who staged suicide bombings and opened fire in what may have been an attempt by the Islamic State to wage a Paris-style attack in the city. But while Facebook quickly activated Safety Check during the Paris attacks, the company didn't activate it in the hours following the violence in Jakarta, which raises questions about what it takes to trigger the tool.
Facebook is huge in Indonesia: Back in 2014, the company said it had nearly 70 million users in the country. In the absence of the official Safety Check after the Jakarta attacks, some hacked together their own version of the of the feature by sharing #SafetyCheckJKT on Facebook and other social networks like Twitter.
Engineers at Facebook first thought up Safety Check as a response to natural disasters like the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and unveiled it in 2014. The Paris attacks were the first time it was triggered in response to a terror attack -- and 4.1 million users checked in with the tool in the 24 hours after the attack, according to Facebook.
But some people raised questions about why Facebook wasn't activated for bombings that occurred in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks. Facebook vice president for growth Alex Schultz addressed the concerns in a post on the social media site: "During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn't a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it's impossible to know when someone is truly 'safe,'" he wrote.
But the Paris attack activation, he said, would mark a change in the company's approach to Safety Check. "We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help," Schultz said.
A week after the Paris attacks, Facebook deployed the tool after a bombing in Nigeria. "We're now working quickly to develop criteria for the new policy and determine when and how this service can be most useful," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the time. But the exact scope of that policy remains unclear, and Facebook did not immediately respond to an inquiry about why it did not turn on Safety Check for the attack in Jakarta.
Indonesia ranked much lower than Nigeria on the Institute for Economics & Peace's latest Global Terror Index -- and, in fact, lower than France. So it's hard to argue the country is a place where this kind of violence is so commonplace that Safety Check wouldn't be helpful.
But one big difference between the attacks in Jakarta and terrorist attacks where Safety Check was used is the body count. Seven deaths have been reported so far in Jakarta -- and five of them were attackers. The Paris shootings left some 130 dead, and the Nigerian bombing killed at least 34 people.
In his earlier post, Schultz said the company applied a set of criteria including the "the scope, scale and impact" when deciding if it should deploy Safety Check during natural disasters. And, sadly, when it comes to violent attacks, "scope, scale and impact" almost by definition comes down to how may people were hurt or killed.
Counting bodies can sound like a gruesome way to quantify the importance of an attack. But in the precious minutes and hours after an attack where a feature like Safety Check can do the most good, Facebook may be taking those numbers into account along with other factors, such as expert feedback and the chatter seen on its own platform, so it can gauge when to use the tool.
Unfortunately, that means Facebook's efforts to provide help for people in a time of crisis have put it in the unenviable position of deciding what counts as a tragedy.