Facebook is Defending Its Use of ‘Safety Check’ After Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015, 1:30 PM UTC
<> on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France.
<> on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France.
Photography by David Ramos — Getty Images

After a series of terrorist attacks roiled Paris on Friday evening, Facebook rolled out one of its latest features—a safety check-in that allows users to alert their network that they are okay.

On Friday, the tool automatically asked Facebook (FB) users near the attacks that left at least 129 people dead if they were safe, and then users could notify their Facebook friends that they were unharmed.

While some users applauded Facebook for using its vast reach for good, others criticized the social network for not implementing the feature during earlier attacks—namely the bomb blasts in Beirut the day before that killed at least 43. Terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks.

On Saturday, Facebook vice president of growth Alex Schultz posted an explanation of the company’s decision to launch the check-in in Paris.

We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones. We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was still a need that we could fill. So we made the decision to try something we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.

Prior to Friday, Facebook had activated the check-in option just a handful of times since its introduction in October 2014—and only for natural disasters: earthquakes in Afghanistan, Chile, and Nepal, as well as Tropical Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific and Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines.

Schultz said that in instances of natural disaster, Facebook rolls out the feature based on the incident’s “scope, scale and impact.” The check-in is less useful during ongoing crises, like wars or public health epidemics, “because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe,'” he said.

The safety check is a new feature for Facebook, so the social network is “still understanding how it can best be used and in what instances,” Schultz said. The feature’s activation in Paris on Friday “will change our policy around Safety Check and when we activate it for other serious and tragic incidents in the future.”

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