Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Activation of the tool has evoked a mix of gratitude and disheartenment.
Many in the U.S. only learned when they woke up Sunday what had happened in the early hours of the morning. A gunman had attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, around 2 a.m, and as police rushed to the scene, the number of casualties climbed: 20 dead, then 40, then—according to the most recent count—50 dead, including the shooter, and 53 more injured.
In the midst of the panic and uncertainty following what has become the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Facebook activated its “Safety Check” tool for the first time in the country. The feature allows people near the area of a crisis—a mass shooting, for example, or a natural disaster—to mark themselves as “safe” or to share a message that they are unhurt. Facebook then alerts the sender’s friends in the network with a notification. Friends can also check in on one another.
“We hope the people in the area find the tool a helpful way to let their friends and family know they are okay,” the company wrote in a post.
Prior to this weekend, earlier versions of the tool had been deployed during the earthquakes in Nepal, Afghanistan, and Chile, and as the Paris attacks unfolded last November. Most recently, it was turned on following a deadly explosion in Lahore, Pakistan, in March, though glitches in the program drew criticism from users.
In a November 2015 post, a representative for Facebook noted the need for easy communication in times of tragedy:
Communication is critical in moments of crisis, both for the people affected and for those far away who are anxious for news. People already turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates during times like this and we created Safety Check to make these connections even easier.
And though the company has gotten flack for its decision on when and where to enable the feature, the post also acknowledged that feedback would be considered for future improvements.
Technology and social media are playing larger roles in times of crisis and tragedy, beyond just email and text alerts. Facebook and Twitter are increasingly used to notify loved ones of each other’s safety or to warn one another of danger nearby. And just last week, France kicked off the annual Euro 2016 soccer tournament with added security and a terror alert app to warn fans and attendees of possible attacks.
Earlier this year, the Michigan State Senate even considered a bill that would allow the state police to tap into emergency alert systems and send warnings about “clear, persistent, ongoing, and random threats” to the public. Proponents, according to VICE, argued that getting people to pay attention early could save more lives. Critics, however, warn that it would create “unnecessary havoc.”
But all that brings up a frightening question of whether mass violence has become the new norm. For people here in the U.S., the activation of—and the need for—Safety Check has evoked mixed feelings.
I'm thankful that I could use the safety check on Facebook to make sure everyone I know is ok, but it's so sad that that even needs to exist— Eden (@eden__renee) June 12, 2016
I never thought I would have to mark myself “safe” on Facebook. Surreal morning. Thoughts and prayers with the victims & their families.— Philip Rossman-Reich (@philrsquared) June 12, 2016
What the feature doesn’t change is the fundamental horror of waiting: Relief may come to those whose friends have marked themselves “safe,” but others stand by, hoping for that familiar ping that may never come.