Our deepest sympathies go out to all those affected by the tragic events in Paris on Friday.

Social media has had an increasing role in crisis situations across the World. Often social media is the first forum to carry news of a disaster or an unfolding emergency situation, many millions of people then take to social media to monitor an event.

Social media platforms are responding, and working on ways to help people let loved ones know if they are in the affected area and if they require help, including the Safety Check feature on Facebook.

The events in Paris on Friday are the first time the Safety Check feature has been activated for a non-natural disaster. 4 million people used the Safety Check feature in Paris and more than 380 million people received a notification to tell them someone they knew was safe. In a statement on Facebook yesterday, Alex Schultz, the Vice President of Growth at Facebook said:

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.

We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was still a need that we could fill. So we made the decision to try something we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.

Facebook Safety Check

Facebook first started development towards its Safety Check feature after the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 which affected more than 12.5 million people. Announcing the release of the feature, Facebook said:

Our engineers in Japan took the first step toward creating a product to improve the experience of reconnecting after a disaster. They built the Disaster Message Board to make it easier to communicate with others. They launched a test of the tool a year later and the response was overwhelming.

Unfortunately, these kinds of disasters happen all too frequently. Each time, we see people, relief organizations and first responders turn to Facebook in the aftermath of a major natural disaster.

This screen shot of the Safety Check is from the earthquake in Nepal in April this year, the feature is automatically initiated if Facebook determines you may be affected.

Facebook Safty

Facebook will determine at your location from the address or city you have listed in your profile and the city where you are using the internet, and send you a notification asking if you are safe, if you have registered your mobile phone with Facebook you will receive a text message asking if you are safe, often in disaster areas text messages can get through where other internet access may be slow or unavailable.

If Facebook has inaccurately identified your location you can check a box that says that you are ‘outside the affected area’. If you are in the affected area you can check the box to confirm that you ‘are safe’, Facebook will immediately create a news post on your profile and send a notification to each of your friends to tell them you are safe, you can also check in friends that are with you as safe.

Yesterdays statement from Facebook regarding its use of the Safety Check feature for the first time in a non-natural disaster concludes:

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. We will learn a lot from feedback on this launch, and we’ll also continue to explore how we can help people show support for the things they care about through their Facebook profiles, which we did in the case for Paris, too.

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. We’re going to continue working to make it better and more useful.

Other social media forums have also played a role in locating loved ones and directing help in major emergencies, on Twitter the hashtag #PorteOuverte was used by residents of Paris, offering help to those in Paris and somewhere to shelter during the mayhem. More than one million tweets using the hashtag had been tweeted in 10 hours, this peaked at 6,900 tweets per minute at around 11.30pm.

It may not be of use in every circumstance, some areas of the world still have poor internet coverage, but where it is available the opportunity social media provides for connecting with loved ones and directing help in an emergency situation is invaluable.

Writing on the day the Safety Check feature was initiated for the Nepal disaster, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said:

When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.

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