How Facebook and Twitter are Helping Users Stay Safe During Crises

On November 13, 2015, 130 people were killed during the most violent act of war on French soil since World War II. During that time, the engineers at Facebook made a decision to open up Safety Check, a tool that Facebook released in 2014 that allows users in a specified area to check a box letting their friends know they’re fine. Facebook has only activated Safety Check a handful of times, most notably during the earthquakes in Nepal in April and May 2015.

Facebook developed the tool when they realized that information infrastructures were becoming overloaded with activity during disasters. If affected people could simply check in on social media, it would keep the phone networks open for urgent emergencies.

When Facebook opened the Safety Check tool in Paris, it was the first time Facebook deployed the tool for a terror attack rather than a natural disaster. This drew criticism because on the same day, about 40 people were killed in Beruit by terrorist bombings. Facebook suggested that turning on the feature in a location where unrest and violence are common would create further confusion, as a safe place cannot always be found after an incident like this.

Confusion is one of the key aspects of using Twitter properly during a crisis as well. During natural disasters or terror attacks, citizens on the ground may be tweeting information without verifying its accuracy. This confusion came up during the hours following the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013.

After the two bombs were detonated, Twitter users posted about additional bombs and fires that didn’t exist, creating panic when police were trying to complete their sweep of the area. That being said, when police did establish that there were no other bombs, Twitter users shared the correct information very quickly, making Twitter a highly efficient form of communication for disaster management.

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