Facebook Will Trigger Safety Alerts More Often

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Facebook said it wasn't a mistake to tell people in Bangkok to mark themselves as safe after the report of a small bomb explosion. It's an example of how much more common the social network's "safety check" alerts are going to become.

A woman checks the Facebook siteon her smartphone.
A woman checks the Facebook siteon her smartphone. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The alerts Tuesday in Bangkok caused panic when people thought they had to be worried about their loved ones. It turned out that a protester was throwing small firecracker bombs at a government building and no one was injured.

Facebook used to decide internally about when it was appropriate to activate safety check, which asks users in a certain geographic area to mark themselves safe after disasters such as the earthquake in Nepal or terrorist attacks in Paris. The incidents that drew the company's attention tended to be large global crises. In November, Facebook handed the power of safety check to its 1.8 billion users, who can now decide on what disasters merit the tool.

"This allows safety check to be used by more people, more often no matter how big or small the crisis is," Facebook said. The alert has been used more than 300 times since June, when the company started testing to let the community trigger it, compared with 39 times Facebook initiated safety check over the previous two years, according to the company.

The problem: by deferring the responsibility to its users, Facebook will likely start sending more alerts that cause alarm over incidents that are benign, like what happened in Bangkok.

The company said that as people get more used to safety check, they will be less likely to equate an alert with a major disaster. The tool debuted for Nepal's 2015 earthquake, which killed almost 9,000 people.

Facebook said its Bangkok alert occurred after the incident was confirmed with a third party and people started talking locally about the threat, triggering its safety check algorithm.

Still, the social network may need to tread more carefully. The alert for Bangkok's government protester linked in error to a story about a serious explosion that happened in 2015. The company is facing criticism for the spread of fake and misleading news on its site, which it has vowed to address.

-- Bloomberg News

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