Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The feature is just starting to be deployed in instances that are not related to terrorism or disaster. But there are a few glaring bugs.
Facebook is already having an undeniable effect on the way people interact with incidents of police violence, as demonstrated when Diamond Reynolds captured the shooting death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a police officer near St. Paul, Minnesota. The social-media giant is now looking to impact how people in cities engage with each other during outbreaks of gun violence in general, through the expansion of its Safety Check feature.
This feature allows people to check in with family members or friends on Facebook when a calamitous event happens. The Safety Check feature has been triggered by natural disasters, like tsunamis and floods, and by terrorist attacks, including the recent Paris bombings. But about a month ago, Facebook began activating Safety Check during instances of violence that aren’t typically labelled as terrorism.
On July 28, a number of Chicago residents were alerted by Safety Check when a shootout broke out in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, leaving two people dead. The abrupt rollout of this alert left some people confused and startled, as reported by DNAInfo Chicago:
After an algorithm detected multiple people in the same area posting about a similar shooting incident, a third party company confirmed that a violent crime had taken place. Then, a [Facebook] alert was sent to those who had posted about the shooting, allowing them to mark themselves "safe" and ask friends and family if they were also affected by the incident.
When the alert reached Brady Chalmers at his Evanston home Thursday morning, he said he was shocked. But as a digital media consultant, he was intrigued.
"In my recollection, I've never seen this done before unless it was some kind of mass-casualty event, like an earthquake or a terrorist attack," said Chalmers, a digital strategist for SEIU Healthcare. "It makes you wonder: Why did they roll this out, and who was it targeted to?"
A Facebook spokesperson tells CityLab that the Chicago incident was not the first time Safety Check was activated domestically for an event that was unrelated to terrorism or a natural disaster. The updated feature, in fact, is community driven—meaning people in Chicago near the shooting were able to trigger the feature themselves. It was also recently activated in Texas, and in Orlando during the June 12 attack on the Pulse nightclub.
"We’ve seen how Safety Check can be a helpful tool to people in times of crisis, and we recently started testing ways to allow communities to activate the tool on their own,” a Facebook spokesperson tells CityLab. “We are continuing to learn from each activation, as we did ... in Chicago."
The feature puts Facebook into an even more essential role in how we communicate with each other, particularly in times of danger. And it’s a good thing for people to have an easy, effective option for connecting with loved ones during distressing events. But not everyone in Chicago was impressed: As Chicago Magazine reported, some were unnerved by the alert—making them actually feel less safe in their city. This follows a March activation of the feature by mistake in Chicago, following a terrorist attack in Pakistan.
Hmm.... Facebook safety check thinks I'm in Pakistan. (I'm in Chicago) pic.twitter.com/HHp5ntwv7A— Nisha Chittal (@NishaChittal) March 27, 2016
Chicago has been particularly beset by increased gun violence over the past two years, but the last thing anyone needs are more messages reinforcing comparisons of the violence there and what’s happening in the war-torn Middle East.