Facebook’s Tragedy Features and the Outrage They Inspired
It’s Monday afternoon. Fewer than three days ago the city of Paris was thrown into chaos. Many people were killed, many more were injured. And today, Mark Zuckerberg changed his profile picture back to an unfiltered one after spending the weekend paying tribute to the French people with a temporary overlay of the country’s flag.
On Friday night following the attacks, Facebook switched on two lesser-known features: Safety Check and Temporary Profiles. The former was a way for people in Paris to let family and friends know they were safe; the latter splashed an overlay of the French flag on top of profile pictures. (I’ve seen the same effect offered to me on certain weekends asking if I want a green and yellow filter to show my enthusiasm for the University of Oregon Ducks.)
Almost immediately, the check-ins and red, white, and blue profile pictures rolled in. It was automatic, really: If someone asked you to participate in something meant to ease the pain and worry of a crisis, you would say yes. So people checked in and other people talked about it and yes, people changed their profile photos.
And then people started asking questions: Why wasn’t Safety check turned on for the people of Beirut, where suicide bombings Thursday killed 43? Or Syria? Or Kenya? Why weren’t there temporary flag filters for these countries, similarly ravaged by tragedy? What was it that set Paris apart?
Zuckerberg responded in part (only addressing the Safety Check feature oversight) on Saturday, in a comment on his own enhanced profile picture:
“Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well … We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”
But how Facebook plans to create parity when it comes to caring is at the moment tough to gauge.
More Than A Number
Web platforms never want to talk much about their algorithms—the secret sauce that powers everything you see. It can be obnoxious or just make you mad with curiosity when it comes to Facebook’s News Feed, Tinder picks, or Netflix suggestions, but it doesn’t needle at your insides the way Facebook’s Safety Check and flag overlays have for so many people over the past four days.
Do these new features get switched on when a certain number or threshold is met? Does it relate to how many mentions a disaster is getting? The number of casualties? Or is it based on the rest of the Internet—if there’s a spike for the news in Paris internet-wide, does that flip the switch? Does it have to do with how many Facebook users are in a certain location? What role do the personal biases of Facebook executives play?
When I asked Facebook, the company pointed me toward its information page for Safety Check, noting that in the 24 hours following its activation, 4.1 million people marked themselves as safe and 360 million people were notified that someone was safe. This is the fifth time Facebook has switched on Safety Check in the last year, though as Zuckerberg points out, the first time for a non-natural disaster. The other events included the earthquake in Nepal this past April; the earthquake in Chile in September; Hurricane Patricia in October; and the earthquake in Pakistan the same month.
So, some hard math. The April 2015 Nepal earthquake killed more than 9,000 and injured more than 23,000—it was measured as an 8.1. In Chile, 13 lost their lives and thousands became homeless. Hurricane Patricia was responsible for six fatalities, and 340 were reported dead in the aftermath of Pakistan’s earthquake. Meanwhile, as of two days ago, the Paris fatalities had reached 129.
These numbers suggest that casualties alone are what set off the alarm—but a quick glance at Google Trends make it clear which caught the Internet’s attention:
Then you have to start asking chicken-or-the-egg questions: Did Facebook give Paris feature precedence over other attacks because that’s what we, its users, were consumed with talking about, or were we consumed with talking about Paris because that’s what Facebook gave precedence?
And while it’s less practical in every respect, the same questions should be asked about the Temporary Profile feature when it’s being used in the wake of tragedy.
Some people are not waiting for answers. Yesterday, Australian design student Hubert Southall offered to make anyone who messaged him whatever overlay they wanted. “I’m hoping to influence Facebook to be more inclusive with their features.” Others are simply creating their own multi-flag filters—one French woman’s refusal to use the Paris tribute temporary profile has gone viral. “I hold every human’s life with value who is attacked by extremist beliefs whether they are based on religion, prejudice or profit!” she wrote on Facebook on Saturday. In Facebook’s Help center, people are asking how they can create their own filters, and even specific questions like, “Is it possible to create a Lebanese flag [filter] for Facebook profile picture?”
Tom Galle, Moises Sanabria, and Slava Balasnov decided to create an app called All Flags, which gives you a wider array of choices for a patriotic overlay. “We felt that Facebook’s tool to express emotions [or] condolences to France by blending the French flag felt problematic on a few levels,” says Galles. “They offer it to people at their most vulnerable and thus receptive moment, making every French flag profile photo a mini-ad for Facebook as a company. Over 20 countries are hit by ISIS on a regular basis, and none of these got tools to express their emotions or condolences, or to notify that they are safe. If they are as ‘good’ as they claim to be, then why did they forget all the other countries hit by ISIS?” The developers took about a day to build their flag filter tool, and while the list is limited right now, they’re asking for people to reach out and tell them other countries they should add.
Meanwhile, the folks behind Rainbowfilter.io (which was originally created to give people rainbow filters on social networks besides Facebook to celebrate same-sex marriage) tell me that during the first 24 hours after the Facebook France filter was introduced, the site saw a 3,000-fold spike in normal daily traffic, “going from 30 people a day to over 100,000 people,” inspired by people looking for more flag options for more social networks. The site also allowed users to make donations to the French Red Cross
But it’s important to note that while third parties might be improving on Facebook’s idea, the people using the original tool aren’t wrong—they’re human. One friend told me that while she’d changed her photo to Facebook’s “show your support for the people of France” option on Friday night, she admitted to the strangeness of it. “The fact that you could put a timer on it, that was weird,” she said. Is one day enough to mourn and show solidarity? Or two? Maybe a week? It feels a little like the appification of tragedy. Instagram, but for human crises.
“We are not trying to judge anyone who uses Facebook’s tool, our aim is to criticize Facebook, not its users,” says Galles. “I think it is only normal that people who are hurt and emotional, and want to express condolences and feel unified, use a tool that’s directly in reach.”
Showmanship and Support
The fight over whether the people who changed their profile photos are sheep and part of a “social experiment” isn’t a worthwhile one (and, if you’re using Facebook, you should already know everything you do is part of a giant social experiment). Why people choose to use the option is really obvious: Something scary and incomprehensible happened, and it makes them feel a little safer, a little like they helped. The Internet can be used as a giant support system and simple visuals are a part of that. But the bigger that support group gets, the more important it is to ask questions about who gets to be part of it—who gets to receive its support and attention.
“We will learn a lot from feedback on this launch, and we’ll also continue to explore how we can help people show support for the things they care about through their Facebook profiles, which we did in the case for Paris, too,” Facebook VP of Growth Alex Schultz wrote in a post—so it would seem we’re getting a soft “yes” on the question of whether more inclusion is coming.
But each school shooting and each hurricane is not going to trigger Facebook’s algorithm or attention. The alarm of sorts that Facebook has created won’t sound for every terrible thing that happens. That doesn’t necessarily mean individual efforts in the form of features and filters are without merit, but in responding to some tragedies and not others, Facebook has put itself in the business of ranking human suffering, and that’s a fraught business to be in. Facebook is built on ranking things that matter and how much, like which BuzzFeed quizzes you see in your News Feed or which friends’ photos show up the most. But it’s deeply uncomfortable—disturbing, really—when that same idea is applied (even with what I have to imagine are different metrics) to disaster and death.
Even then, the real problem is just really simple and really sad: That there is too much tragedy in the world for Facebook—or any network—to effectively quantify.