Facebook’s safety check feature and the “whataboutery” of global conflict

When Facebook told us our friends in Paris were safe, it didn't take long for the questions to begin: What about Beirut? What about Ankara? 

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Soon after the attacks on Paris on Friday night, smartphones across the world lit up, as Facebook told us which of our friends were safe. The girl from your university course whose name you didn’t immediately recognise? She was safe. The friend you didn’t realise was in France in the first place? Safe, too. Alongside the list of the safe was another, unsettling one: those not yet accounted for.

Of all the reasons why the Paris attacks received such widespread attention, especially on social media, Facebook’s safety check seems particularly significant. It's hard to feel disconnected from tragedy as you receive personalised updates linking it again and again to your life and your friends'. As the updates arrived, it felt natural to flick from the Facebook app to Instagram, and republish Jean Jullien’s cartoon (at one point on Saturday morning, my feed was a solid wall of Eiffel Tower peace signs). When Facebook asked if we’d like a French flag on our profile pictures, it felt natural to say yes.  

The seamlessness of this process, and the outpouring of empathy it drummed up, came with a kickback. The night before the Paris attacks, a bomb attack killed 40 in Beirut, prompting no response from Facebook at all. As the weekend wore on, people began to ask questions. Who was safe in Beirut? Who wasn’t? Where were Beirut’s viral images and filtered flags? And what about Ankara, where over 100 people were killed by a blast last month?   

In response to the outrage, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained in a comment on his own, Tricolore-branded profile picture that the feature had only been used in natural disasters before. Its use during Paris attacks was a test, prompted by the high levels of Facebook activity surrounding the events. Yet as a piece in the Economist pointed out this week, this “doesn't explain why the hours between the [Paris and Beirut attacks] made such a difference”.

Last night, a bomb attack carried out by Boko Haram killed 32 in northern Nigeria. For the second time, Facebook turned on its Safety Check feature for a non-natural disaster, meaning those in the surrounding area could mark themselves as "safe". Was this because the company now believes it a useful response to acts of war, as well as of nature, or as a result of the criticism it received post-Paris? It's not clear. 

We may not know whether Facebook’s use of the feature in Paris was affected by a western-centric view of global conflict, but we can know with a degree of certainty that we, as average social media users, were. The barrage of Facebook posts and tweets accusing news outlets of ignoring attacks in Beirut and Ankara were misplaced: both events were covered extensively through liveblogs and news piece in outlets from the Guardian to the BBC. But these events didn’t filter into front pages, opinion columns or cartoons because they didn’t spark interest among readers. 

As such, while the rounds of “whataboutery” that follow any global even seem targeted at news outlets in particular, they also stem from our own feelings of guilt. As Max Fisher wrote at Vox, the anger about Paris coverage really comes from "a sense that the world at large has ignored Beirut's trauma and that it ignores similar traumas throughout the world if they occur in the wrong places".

Despite the fact that information is more readily available to us than ever before, we choose to consume it via ever-narrowing channels, often relying on our social networks for information. News comes to us via social media sites which are doggedly ruled by our tastes and those of our friends and networks: the BBC may forefront a Boko Haram story despite low numbers of readers, but Twitter or Facebook certainly won’t. If we’re not seeing stories on social media, it’s because we and our friends aren’t interested enough to read or share them. To paraphrase a colleague’s reaction to the “what about Beirut” tweets and Facebook posts: “If you’re not seeing those stories, you need to get new friends.” 

On the other hand, the nature of social media means it's within our powers to change the status quo. By asking Facebook “what about…?” users sent a strong message to the social network, one that seems to have resulted in positive action in Nigeria. If we actually care about conflicts around the world, as opposed to those in our backyard, we need to show it with our shares and clicks, not through virtue-signalling diatribes against Paris tributes. News outlets and social media cater, as exactly as possible, to our tastes. If we don't like what they're serving us, we should change what we're ordering. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.