Last week Friday was a bloodbath in Paris, many with loved ones living in the city received a new type of notification from Facebook. The social network activated a relatively new tool called Safety Check for the attacks, letting people in Paris easily tell their friends and that they were safe.
While the feature has been helpful for many, some pointed to its use in Paris but not for other recent attacks — like a twin suicide bombing that killed over 40 in Beirut on Thursday, the over 15o students that were massacred in Kenya in April this year and the ongoing violence in Burundi— as yet another example of western bias that apparently values certain lives more than others.
Over the weekend, there has been a lot of backlash as people especially here in Africa feel the social media company is being biased and expressing some form of white supremacy and bias. Most saw it unfit to join the bandwagon of changing their profile pictures with the France flag showing solidarity to the nation. Facebook saw fit to respond to those accusations in a blog post written by the company’s vice president of growth, Alex Schultz. In it, Schultz notes that this is the first time the company has enabled Safety Check for anything other than a natural disaster, events which the tool was originally designed for when it was released last year.
Like a natural disaster, he notes, during the attacks “Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones.” After discussing with Facebook employees on the ground, the company decided it was a good idea to turn on Safety Check. “There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.”
Now that Facebook has set a precedent for using Safety Check for terrorism and other violent events, it will need to figure out when and where to use the feature. From Schultz’s comments, it’s not clear if the team would have enabled it for Beirut. He includes the Lebanese city among “other parts of the world, where violence is more common and terrible things happen with distressing frequency.” And he notes that “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.'”
That said, Schultz writes that “We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help,” adding, “We will learn a lot from feedback on this launch.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg built on those remarks with his own statement, saying: “You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world. We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”