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How Can We Fix the Facebook Safety Check Bias?

By Wayan Vota on November 15, 2015


In reaction to Friday’s tragedy in Paris, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature for the first time for a man-made disaster. While I am excited about Facebook’s expanded use of the feature, and do not want to diminish the relief it brought to many, this use highlights the dark side to Safety Check that I pointed out previously: in it’s current form, Facebook Safety Check is inherently biased.

According to the official explanation from Alex Schultz, Vice President of Growth:

We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones.

We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was still a need that we could fill. So we made the decision to try something we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.

Yet the day before, Beirut suffered terrorists attacks that killed 43 people, including an amazing act of heroism. But unlike Paris, there was no Safety Check, no Lebanese flag overlay for Facebook profile pictures, and as a result Beiruti rightly feel forgotten.

Why didn’t Facebook activate Safety Check for Beirut’s attack?

The official explanation says:

People are also asking why we turned on Safety Check in Paris and not other parts of the world, where violence is more common and terrible things happen with distressing frequency. Thursday’s tragedy in Beirut is one recent example. […]

During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.”

I guess that means no Safety Check or flag profile overlay for gun violence in the USA, since we have a mass shooting every day, and over 100x more deaths from gun violence than terrorism. But I wonder if Facebook would activate a Safety Check for another Garissa, where 147 people died in a terrorist attack, or another Westage, with 67 dead?

You could make the claim that Paris is more famous, but I know more people in Kenya than France, and with 4.5 million users in Kenya, and over 120 million on the continent, Africa is a market worth noting. However, I doubt that another Chibok would get Facebook’s attention, because it didn’t get Paris-level attention even at its peak.

And that’s the real problem with Facebook Safety Check.

As long as Facebook engineers are the ones who determine when a Safety Check or flag overlay is activated (or not), it will be biased towards events that cause international outcry. That means leaving the internal press, and their advertisers, as the indicators of what is a tragedy worth supporting or not.

I think we can all agree that the international press over-emphasizes events in richer countries and under-reports events in the developing world. Therefore, there needs to be a better, more egalitarian way to activate and use Safety Check.

A Democratized Facebook Safety Check

When I asked my Facebook friends for a solution, two great ideas came up quickly.

  • Mike Dawson suggested making the Facebook Safety Check a user accessible feature all the time, so users could click it whenever they feel the need. If X% of people in area Y start using it, Facebook would know to start prompting it to people who it thinks are in that area, increasing its utility for everyone involved.
  • Alice Liu suggested to make the Facebook Profile Overlay work with any flag, whenever users want to use it. Then they can show solidarity with whatever tragedy (or celebration) that strikes a nerve at that moment.

Of course, this still leaves Safety Check public activation and Profile Overlay image choices in the hands of Facebook engineers, which will invite a certain level of bias – not that anything that involves humans is without bias of some sort – but with less than the obvious bias than currently exists.

That’s our quick solutions. What are yours? Tell us in the comments.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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6 Comments to “How Can We Fix the Facebook Safety Check Bias?”

  1. Alice Liu says:

    I was also going to add that some enterprising people could create a tool that makes it easy to overlay our photos (something may already exist for all I know), and continuously update this with more options (celebrate a holiday, say a heart overlay for Valentine’s Day). And also be a repository for user-generated photos/graphics that people can submit to for people to use as their profile pic, like the Jean Jullien drawing, photos of famous or government buildings lit up in the country’s colors. It doesn’t have to be in Facebook’s control.

  2. Michael Riggs says:

    Hi Wayan, thanks for writing this. I think the bias found in the individuals who manage these functions at Facebook reflects the broader public bias from lack of awareness. I myself was surprised this weekend at the number of people who were discussing Paris but unaware of Beirut.

    I like the suggestions of your Facebook friends. It might not be perfect, but it would make these functions more social and get some level of crowd-sourced response. I hope Facebook will consider it. Currently the functions are very hierarchical even though they are part of a social media platform. (We could take this discussion about Facebook as a whole much further.)

    • Wayan Vota says:

      True, FB Safety Check, and Facebook/social media in general, merely reflects back our own biases. I am just as guilty as anyone else of focusing my attention & care on people and issues I have connections vs. those I do not. My hope is that by democratizing the tools of social media, we can use them better for our own development purposes, no matter who we care about.

  3. Ronda Zelezny-Green says:

    Hi Wayan, excellent post. I like that you went one step further to crowdsource solutions. I was surprised that the Kenya news was recirculating… because I wasn’t on Facebook when it happened, I found it strange that people were sharing it as if it were a current topic. Despite some of the “bandwagon” appeal of now pointing out how this happens everywhere, it has been encouraging to see so many people demanding better coverage and support when unfortunate events like this occur. I dare say the power of mobile really enables us to do, see and share so much more, and get news from sources that aren’t as common, which will hopefully continue to push major news and social media organizations to do better.