Facebook’s Safety Check: what is it, and is it helping?

London suffered its first, large-scale terrorist attack since the 7/7 bombings this week. Tragically, three innocent lives were taken, and the attacker was shot and killed by the police.

At the time, no one knew if another attack was on its way, or if this was a one-off. Amid the confusion, it was clear that London was facing a crisis. And Facebook was quick to respond, activating their Safety Check feature for the first time in the UK.

The communication system was introduced by Mark Zuckerberg in October 2014 “to serve everyone in the world”, though it was designed with Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in mind.

In the two and a half years since its implementation, the Safety Check feature has been activated 35 times, giving users near an incident the chance to ‘mark’ themselves safe for their friends and family to see.

It could not have been anticipated that just seven of the activations would turn out to be for natural disasters, with most of the other crises ‘man-made’.

In fact, the majority of system activations were catalysed by some sort of attack, often terror-related, with shootings, bombings, and even hand grenades causing the feature to be activated.

The chart below shows how many times Safety Check has appeared after different types of disaster.

The ‘other’ category includes miscellaneous events such as a building collapsing in Tel Aviv, Israel, and a train crash in New Jersey, US in September 2016.

77% of system activations took place in 2016 alone. As journalists, we’re not supposed to speculate, but this figure certainly lends power to the theory that 2016 was one of the worst years in history.

It’s not uncommon for events that are not globally-recognised to trigger the safety check. It was activated after a fire in Massachusetts in December last year. No one was hurt, but the community were concerned after 60 people were displaced.

Ultimately, Safety Check is a community tool, and it’s no surprise Facebook wants to err on the side of caution when it comes to declaring a crisis.

The social network has been criticised, however, for its system’s excitability. This week, the Guardian’s Tim Burrows claimed Facebook only created “another avenue for fear” by activating the Safety Check during the Westminster Attacks because it was confined to a small area.

As well as informing the user which friends have checked in as safe, the system also lists those who haven’t, potentially evoking further worry.

But this is the nature of a crisis situation: events are ultimately unpredictable. And in a crisis, it is not better to have the option of reassurance?

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