Facebook to widen Safety Check use after Paris attacks

Sarah Frier
Bloomberg News

During the horrific attacks in Paris, Facebook Inc. made a tool available for people in the area to let friends know they were safe. “Safety Check” had never been enacted for something that wasn’t a natural disaster, and as the death toll rose Friday the company garnered praise for acting fast.

A few hours later, some users reacted differently: Where was Safety Check after suicide bombings in Beirut killed more than 40 people? Or after an attack at Garissa University College in Kenya left 147 dead?

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg says critics were right. The social network will now activate Safety Check for a broader range of human disasters.

“You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world,” he wrote in a post on Facebook. “We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”

Facebook decided to activate the tool after talking to employees in Paris during the attacks. With Zuckerberg’s promise, Facebook will now have to keep a handle on major disastrous events around the world, even if they aren’t broadly covered by the media, and even if the base of Facebook users in the country isn’t as large as it is in Paris.

Facebook started Safety Check as a response to the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and has since used it for earthquakes in Nepal, Chile and Afghanistan, as well as Typhoon Ruby and Tropical Cyclone Pam. The company says it has criteria for deciding whether to use it, based on the “scope, scale and impact” of the disaster, according to Alex Schultz, vice president of growth at the company.

Although manmade disasters are now included, Facebook says it can’t help with war or the spread of diseases like Ebola — at least not yet.

In those cases, “because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe,”’ Schultz said in a post on Facebook.