Are you OK?

Facebook wants to know. This is the question the Facebook alert system asks you if you are marked via your locational status as someone within the geographic proximity of an attack, natural disaster or otherwise life-threatening situation (Toor, 2016). The site allows you to respond either via text message or online to let others know you are OK by marking you safe. Introduced in 2014, Safety Check gives your online “friends,” family and acquaintances peace of mind that you are accounted for and not missing, injured or worse (Baig, 2016).

While some have criticized Facebook for exploiting users by selling location and demographic data to marketers, it seems the company has found a way through Safety Check to utilize user specific data in a less controversial manner (Morran, 2014). The general premise of the Safety Check places Facebook in a “do good” role while acknowledging and encouraging safety and well being for its users.

However, while Safety Check has general good intentions behind it, some have found issue with the fact that the company has issued the alert system in response to some events and not others. Last year, the company came under fire for activating the checks in response to the November Paris terrorist attacks, but failed to issue the check after the bombings which took place in Beirut (Baig, 2016). This was seen as controversial as it made users feel as though Facebook was valuing the lives and well being of some of its worldwide (approximately 1.59 billion monthly) users over others (Smith, 2016). Mark Zuckerberg responded by summating that the company cares about all people equally and the intention was not to play favorites, but rather to alert people worldwide and look out for their safety (Rogers, 2016).

Then, a glitch in the alert system following the Lahore, Pakistan suicide bombing a few days ago on March 27, 2016 caused unintentional panic among users who received the alert by accident. I was one of these users. Here’s what I woke up to on the home screen of my iPhone:

Facebook post pic

iPhone screen

While I was saddened about the attacks and also thankful I was not nearby Lahore, I was somewhat concerned about my online affiliation with Pakistan, and quickly wondered how I had wound up on the alert list as someone located in this area. Did I somehow have online ties to Pakistan? How did location tracking data mark me in this region? What was Facebook doing with my personal data? The paranoia ensued. I was not alone in expressing this concern as many throughout Europe and even the United States reported that they had erroneously received the alert and were located no where near the bombing (Rogers, 2016).

To make matters worse, some Facebook users received texts indicating that there had been an explosion, but no further information about where the explosion had occurred. This created even more anxiety as Facebook failed to provide accurate or complete information when executing the text alert portion of the Safety Check. Take a look:

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.02.24 PM

At the end of the day, most users were understanding and appreciative of Facebook’s gesture, responding with comments like, “I live in Ohio, but thanks for your concern anyway Facebook!” but others weren’t as pleased. Here’s what some had to say:

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 3.57.44 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.08.10 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.08.15 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.00.00 PM

What do you think about Facebook’s Safety Check alert system? Does it do more harm than good? Do you find it helpful? Are you OK with Facebook using location data to find you? Moving forward, especially with the recently issued travel alerts from the State Department in response to the instability in the Middle East, how do you think Facebook should utilize Safety Check for future events? Should it be used for every single event (large or small, natural disaster or not) in any area of the world? Let me know your thoughts!

References:

https://consumerist.com/2014/06/12/facebook-is-now-selling-your-web-browsing-data-to-advertisers/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2016/03/28/facebook-apologizes-safety-check-error-after-lahore-bombing/82338260/

http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2016/03/28/facebook-safety-check-glitch-sent-out-misdirected-notifications-following-pakistan-blast.html

http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/by-the-numbers-17-amazing-facebook-stats/

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-apologizes-for-safety-check-glitch-following-pakistan-bombing/

About Alli

First year communications management graduate student at USC Annenberg. Former strategic communications consultant with 3+ years of experience in consulting serving Fortune 500 company clients and government leaders.
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5 Responses to Are you OK?

  1. Stephanie says:

    Hi Alli,

    I had no idea this was a feature within Facebook. Part of me wants to like it. But part of me is skeptical about what they are doing with my information, and more importantly how are they getting my information, if I’m not in the location they think I’m in. I would have the same amount of panic you did when wondering how one can be associated with a location they are no where near. Very interesting read and I would be much more will come with this new feature.
    Stephanie Hoyle

  2. gfaris says:

    Some of the concerns you are raising on this service that Facebook provides are very thoughtful and do impede on boundary lines with some users. The social media platform may not always be able to accurately assess who is connected to specific natural disasters. However, I do appreciate that Facebook added this service as I think it brings people together and helps some to know whether their loved ones ok. With some refinement and privacy concern implementations it may be more effective.

  3. Jill says:

    Alli,

    Wow, I am so glad you posted this because I woke up with the same message on that day, and, while I heard there had been some errors, I didn’t realize the error had been so widespread! It makes me feel better to know that I wasn’t in the minority in being falsely identified as being in Pakistan when I was in Southern California! But . . . I’m rather concerned about the whole concept of this. On the one hand, I see why Facebook would want to associate itself with this mission to make sure people are safe. But, I think this issue of choosing which disasters to be concerned about is a dicey one that is going to get them into trouble. And, of course, there are the privacy issues as well. Perhaps this should be a service that people can opt into? I don’t know. It seems like perhaps this concept has flaws that Facebook isn’t quite able to handle. And, what if I had really been in Pakistan and hadn’t responded to the message. Would my friends and family have been notified that I wasn’t ok? This is all seems a bit troubled to me.

    Jill

  4. Elizabeth says:

    The title of your post reminded me of YouTube star, GloZell:
    http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/0d/0dcc0afaed94b3746e3f9723780970a81980517bc5f5e6e1ed72b59b2b3baf68.jpg

    I don’t have Facebook (for reasons to simplify life) but I was sitting in church of all places when my friend sitting next to me showed me the notification she received about the incident in Pakistan. She said, “Facebook FAIL!”

    Until now, I wasn’t aware this was a widespread incident for Facebook users in general and that it had to do with a new Facebook service. Very informative, thanks!

  5. Allison says:

    This is alarming, no pun intended! I would not have known about it if it weren’t for this post. While I like the idea in concept, they apparently have some bugs to work out. I think this is not something that is well thought out on the larger mass communication platform and how it impacts reactions to events. Is facebook trying to help or drive a dependency on the platform to disseminate information.