Facebook Updates Safety Check Feature

By Tracey Dowdy

Facebook has made an important change to its Safety Check feature.

If you’re not familiar with the feature, Safety Check sends a message to Facebook users within a geographic area of immediate danger such as natural disaster, terrorist attack or a mass shooting. Users can then notify friends and family that they are safe and sound.

Initially, Facebook manually controlled Safety Check and determined whether an event was alert-worthy. In response, they would send a message to users in the affected area based on the city listed in your profile, your last location listed if you had activated Nearby Friends, and the city where you are currently using the Internet. Users who were safe selected “I’m safe” and an automatically generated notification would be posted to your Timeline.

Since its introduction in late 2014, Facebook had activated Safety Check 39 times. However, they faced criticism for failing to activate the tool in certain areas of the world. For example, it was activated for the Paris attacks in November of 2015, but not for bombings in Beirut the day before.

In response to the criticism, Facebook handed control over to the Facebook community. Instead of Facebook staff far removed from an event determining whether an alert should be sent, users themselves can activate Safety Check. The Orlando Nightclub shooting back in June was one of the first times it was activated by users instead of Facebook staff.

Now, Facebook algorithms search for keywords like “tsunami”, “shooting”, or “fire” in real-time and then fact-check the veracity of the posts through a third-party security firm. If the information is verified, Safety Check is activated.

Allowing the community to control activation is seen as a smart move. Peter Cottle, lead engineer on crisis response for Facebook, explained their motivation for the change. “A typhoon in the Philippines might have six inches of water in your house, and in California, that’d be a big deal. But in the Philippines, we did research there, and people said this wasn’t a big deal.”

“We can tell how many people are spreading this and marking themselves safe, and how quickly it’s growing,” Cottle said. “There’s a real strong measure of urgency based on the rapidness of the people who are using the tool.”

As follow up, Facebook is in beta stages of a Community Help page users can look to after checking in as safe. It will be a forum for those looking for or offering support in the form of supplies, medical aid or counseling services and was born from the #PorteOuverte (Open Door) hashtag after the Paris attacks.

For more information about Safety check, follow this link.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


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