While the world mourns for Paris's tragedy, there's a strong dissonance between safe and unsafe zones. Beirut, Lebanon was rocked with similar twin attacks on November 12, 2015 but receive little media attention.
When Facebook launched the Safety Check app during the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, the information was critical in letting loved ones know about safety status. Usually used for natural disasters, the scope of the Paris massacre required immediate action, according to the company.
“We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones,” said Alex Schultz, Vice President of Growth.
And families may be concerned on an international level, too. Think of families with children studying in an attacked location. There’s a very real possibility someone you love may be dead. Lassanna Diarra plays for the French national team and was in the middle of an exhibition game with Germany during the attacks.
As Stade de France visitors gathered in celebration, the rest of the city shattered.
When the teams received word of the carnage, of the destruction, Diarra also received word of a deceased cousin. According to his official twitter, Asta Diakite was more than a cousin—she was “un repère, un soutien, une grand soeur” ("a reference, a support, a big sister").
Additionally, Atletico Madrid player Antoine Griezmann’s sister was in the Bataclan. The French player tweeted, “Thank God my sister was able to get out” and added his thoughts were with the nation. In French, "Grâce à Dieu ma soeur a pu sortir du Bataclan. Toutes mes prières vont aux victimes et leurs familles."
Powerful reasons to need reliable verification, especially as the European nation moves into a state of emergency in the aftermath. People to need the ability to check-in. Imagine finding out about potential danger; then finding out someone you love dearly is no longer alive because of fearmongering and political showmanship.
Short bursts of info in an overextended cell areas helps establish areas with the greatest need of public service as well. Using the system to help calm the public and keep phone lines open for real emergencies more than likely helped save many lives. Think about the way social media bands together and finds solutions, like allowing strangers to stay with each other in a terrorized zone. It's a simple method of delivering pertinent locations and directions.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, Fast Company discussed how “a massive and unexpected surge” can collapse a system’s capacity to handle requests. Verizon Wireless’s Thomas Pica told the magazine that“text requires less dedicated real-time capacity than voice. Data networks including LTE and EVDO were not impacted due to the nature of the way data systems are used."
As Executive Director of Corporate Communications, Pica probably knows why mobile service may be done. However, there’s another angle to Facebook’s use of the app in Paris. What’s the qualifier? If natural disasters are no longer the sole reason, what made Facebook’s choice of Paris so important?
The attacks in Paris were devastating. But they were not the only attacks in recent days. Terroristic attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed over 40 people in seemingly-random twins acts of violence on Thursday, November 12, 2015.
“During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn't a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it's impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe.’" At least in Facebook's opinion.
But is safety truly that hard to acknowledge? And would the company say that the war on Ebola in West Africa was no less vital than “the recent earthquakes in Afghanistan, Chile and Nepal as well as Tropical Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific and Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines.” How does one decide the value of peace of mind?
Elie Fares used his blog to open up what it was like to be tied to both France and Lebanon—to share the love of nations through tragedy. Unlike Paris, Beirut was simply ignored in the full scope of pain.
“When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”
A nation in mourning and grief with the world never offering true camaraderie in the time of greatest need while pushing the tragedy of another for sound bites and clicks. Beirut still faced a large amount of people in one single location. It was still murder, mayhem, and desecration of life.
Mothers, sisters, and brothers still returned home to plan funerals and to stare at empty rooms. Romantic partners still had to lay in beds where just hours earlier a loved one was part of their everyday world.
Fares and the Lebanese shouldn’t have to accept “we don’t really matter” as a valid reasoning. Nor how “there is a sense that we are not as important, that our lives are not as worthy.” The biggest divide of all when lives matter, regardless of location, and the easiest way to tear national identity apart and up for another form of subjugation by a military power.
“If only Europe knew, though, that the night of November 13 in Paris has been every single night of the life of those refugees for the past two years. But sleepless nights only matter when your country can get the whole world to light up in its flag color.”
Beyond Americana and nostalgia
Schultz and Facebook deem war as something ongoing with no clear end.
Ultimately, what the Lebanese faced is no less important than the Parisians. Families still worry and fret whenever a major conflict splashes across the news. People gunned down in the streets, communities rocked, and aid needed. When Western European and American mindsets seem to deem problems low in relation to their own spaces, it doesn’t help those scared and worried about loved ones.
One commenter on Facebook noted, “As a Lebanese-American, I have family in Beirut...I also have family in Paris, given the long ties between both nations. (Lebanon began as a French protectorate.)”
There’s a tie-in history, in colonialism and globalization. But it’s going unnoticed and unspoken. “In many cases, this extended family of mine, is the -same people-. Yet, if they're in Paris that day, and not in Beirut, FB would care...but not otherwise.”
That matters as the people of Beirut look for healing, international and local levels.
In a New York Times article, the paper discusses how many Lebanese feel forgotten in a need to stand with Paris. This does not pit one city against another, however. Instead the lack of grief shows a bias between “safe” versus “unsafe,” the very topics Facebook uses as a criteria.
Safety is an illusion in the modern world. No one is safe, whether walking to the grocery store or using an airplane for travel. No one is safe and for those ‘forgotten’ the discrepancy must be heartbreaking.
Imagine your loved one is missing in a random attack in your hometown. The ability to access personal data and confirmation, the worrying 24 hours until news finally travels. Or imagine being able to press a button and know your loved one is safe because the app is instantaneous; it doesn’t matter if Facebook Corporate is affected or not since your needs are what matters in that case.
Take that away and what do you see? A very grim fear and worry as terrorists force violence in a city for simply existing. It shouldn’t matter that Lebanon is near Syria. No more than it should matter that Syria’s in the middle of a very deep crisis. What should matter is the ability to allay fears in the middle of a major crisis where death keeps arriving.
Sandra Hassan created the “I Am Alive” app to push out information for loved ones during conflicts and crises in Syria—to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Offering that same confirmation allows a sense of peace. The internal system allows focus to remain on the unaccounted, the ones who may be lost forever.
Fear is a powerful tool and that's why terrorists use it to direct and effect international ideology. Facebook’s much more funded system could easily follow the same process, but it doesn’t. Why? Is it easier for the giant to selectively care direct affect and effect?
The world stopped and lit up momentums for Paris once again, recalling the Charlie Hebdo massacre. But the fact is that many more people are dying from the callous murder and political groundwork of organizations. Terroristic attacks are novel in the Westernized, democratic society framework. Conflicts are more pushed by the leaders versus the subjugated in the First World.
What happened in Paris, the murdering of 129 people and over three hundred more is terrible and brutal. But it’s not the only instance of harm that one terroristic group has done in the past week. Or threatened to do more, such as bombing the hotel that Germany’s national team was supposed to stay at.
What to change
Show solidarity by understanding how social media can help families track missing members. Stop forcing users to create apps that use your tech. Work with people who have used the software. Ask questions. Stop looking a single angle and see the wider need for speaking.
“This activation will change our policy around Safety Check and when we activate it for other serious and tragic incidents in the future. We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help,” announced Schultz.
If Facebook does follow new guidelines, will it help?
“We create products that we think will help people and we work hard to perfect the solution over time. Safety Check remains a work in progress, but one that has helped many people stay in touch with their friends and family during difficult times.”
Many different platforms offer key locations for checking in. During major crises, Google.org opens up spreadsheets with a list of people checked into various shelters. According to Social Media Monthly, in the case of Hurricane Sandy, the company pushed National Weather Service updates whenever someone searched about the upcoming storm.
When a shooting occurred near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Twitter alerts directed better forms of escape and communication. Social media has its place in the world of news and information. There’s value in the idea.
When various leaders spoke at a subcommittee hearing, one of the most relevant comments focused on following the public’s shifting tech. PDFs are great for internal dialogue. Not so much for complying data to place in a database like Google’s crisis management system.
Facebook can and should do better. Despite the Paris attacks as the first implementation beyond natural disasters, the company needs to look past random activation.
If all else fails, talk to Hassan. She’s an invaluable resource as someone from a conflict zone, both in practice and empathy. She understands what we, Westerners, do not always get on a cultural level. After all, most of us are pretty comfortable in our chair right now, reading the news and (probably) sipping a pumpkin spice latte.
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Mark Zuckerberg's claim of "caring about all people equally" must now be proven since the record's tarnished. For an international platform, Facebook must look beyond its American borders.