Facebook's Safety Check feature. Explained.

For many reading this it will be the tragic events of last week that, for the first time, highlighted Facebook's Safety Check feature. With many of us having friends and family living abroad it was a way for us to quickly be reassured that they were safe and well. But this feature has actually been around for over a year, and thousands have already benefited from it during disasters worldwide.

How Safety Check came about

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was devastating. According to the Japanese Red Cross, more than 12.5 million people were affected nationwide, and more than 400,000 people were evacuated. During that crisis Facebook observed how people were naturally using technology and social media to stay connected with those they cared about. To provide reassurance of their safety, and updates on the situation.

At the time Facebook's engineers built a Disaster Message Board, to make it easier to communicate with others. The response to this tool was overwhelming and they decided to spend the coming years refining it.

Then, in October 2014 Mark Zuckerberg officially announced the release of Safety Check. A streamlined, quick way to communicate during a disaster. It promised to transform post-crisis communications.

What it does

The feature aims to be as simple as possible. When active, Safety Check will help you:

  • Let friends and family know you’re safe
  • Check on others in the affected area
  • Mark your friends as safe

Originally Safety Check was envisaged as a response to purely natural disasters - tsunamis, earthquakes etc. It has been used in Nepal, Chile, Pakistan, among others - quickly being deployed in each location.

Paris was the first time it was used during a man-made disaster. This has been a source of controversy for Facebook - immediately making many question why they would activate it here but not for other similar events occurring in Beirut, or previous large scale tragedies.

Mark Zuckerberg quickly responded with a statement: “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well … We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”

Taken with scepticism at first by many, Facebook has been true to its word. It has since re-activated Safety Check in Nigeria, during a string of suicide bombings by Boko Haram. This has been welcomed by Nigerians and the wider public. 

It's important to note that Facebook is one of the few platforms able to create such a tool. Safety Check relies on mass awareness and high usage. Facebook leads in this regard - with 1.4 billion monthly active users - making it the leader in terms of overall numbers and in proportion to its complete user base.

How exactly does it work?

We likely will never be told by Facebook whether the decision is made by a human or by an algorithm. Both have sensitivities, and both beg the question: what conditions are in place which determine when to activate it. As WIRED points out, it seems doubtful that it is based on casualties alone, with the publication suggesting that volume of online conversation may have some influence on the decision.

According to Facebook, during the events in Paris 4.1 million people marked themselves as safe and 360 million people were notified that someone was safe. There's little doubt that Safety Check is an incredibly important tool, and a great simple example of social media as a force for good. 

The header image for this post is from the French Red Cross. The organisation mobilised over 340 people during the Paris attacks, and are continuing to help survivors.  If you are looking for a valuable and active way to support the efforts of those who helped on the ground then consider donating to them here: https://www.ammado.com/nonprofit/crf