After Munich, Facebook Activates Safety Check For 25th Time

The feature originally designed for natural disasters is being increasingly activated during terror attacks

Jul 22, 2016 at 2:25 PM ET

Shortly after a “shooting spree” killed several people and wounded many others in Munich, Germany, Facebook turned on its Safety Check feature, which lets people in the area of a tragic event assure friends and family that they’re safe. It was the twenty-fifth time Facebook has used the feature.

Each time the social media platform does this—or chooses not to—it feels like a value judgement. What, after all, constitutes an important tragedy? In the past, the company has been accused of turning it on when disasters happen in Europe, yet being more reluctant to do so if the event is somewhere else around the world.

The ISIS attacks that killed 130 in Paris last November prompted Facebook to turn on Safety Check, the first time it did so for an act of terrorism, instead of a natural disaster. But mere hours before, an attack in Beirut, for which ISIS also claimed credit, left 43 dead. It was the worst attack in that city since 1990, but Facebook offered no Safety Check.

A representative for Facebook refused to comment on the company’s decision-making process for the service, and instead referred to a post by Vice President of Growth Alex Schultz. There, Schultz wrote that the service was originally intended for only natural disasters, but Facebook changed that policy for the Paris attacks only after seeing an inordinate amount of user activity about them. Beirut, he says, simply didn’t get that kind of attention from users. “There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris,” he wrote.

Since then, the company has used the feature fifteen times. Eight of those were for acts of terror: bombings in Yola, Nigeria; twice in Ankara, Turkey, Brussels, Orlando, Nice, and Munich. And while it’s still fair to ask why Facebook didn’t decide to trigger Safety Check for Beirut, it is true that the majority of times it’s turned it on it’s been somewhere besides the West.