By Syed Talal and Samir Yawar
If Facebook is a social network for everyone, why is there a significant difference in how it reacts to tragedies across the world? That’s the question that has kicked up a storm, highlighting how social media has become an indispensable (and indisputable) part of our lives.
The terrible attacks in Paris over the weekend generated a global outpouring of sympathy and support from world leaders, nations and people of all creed and color.
Facebook itself wasn’t far behind and debuted a temporary profile picture superimposed with the French flag. In an ideal world, all human tragedies would be treated equally and there wouldn’t have be fights about death tolls, destructions and comparing tragedies on social media. But that’s exactly what happened.
Let’s just state point blank that this is a post about not indulging in a game of #Whataboutery, but it’s about highlighting the technical and social ramifications behind Facebook’s decision to debut ‘I stand with France’ profile pictures and the Safety Check.
The Politics of Tragedies
Sadly, tragedy is always around us, so the timing of Facebook’s move has won it its fair share of detractors. Because we have seen so many comparisons made between tragedies past and present, it becomes difficult to see things with a neutral eye. But that’s the thing with tragedies – neutrality goes out of the window. And this is where we find ourselves time and again.
One thing should be obvious. The western media is the western media after all so it’s natural they favor their own. That’s how human nature works with all its inherent biases and leanings and predispositions. No conspiracy to be had here.
Let’s follow this train of thought though. Is Facebook really a ‘western’ company? It always says it’s the social network for everyone and the claim makes sense. It has 1.5 billion users, with different belief systems, values and nationalities utilizing it. Surely as global companies go, what’s good for the goose should also be good for the gander? Equality for all, right?
History of Facebook’s Safety Check Feature and why it Matters Now
The Nepal earthquake that struck on April 2015, that was the first time Facebook debuted its ‘Safety Check’ feature. Let’s assume this was motivated by good old-fashioned regard for humanity as a whole. It tested a product and it succeeded. Facebook could’ve easily turned Safety Check into a PR win if it announced plans to roll it out then. But selective implementation has resulted in valid questions being raised.
Let’s consider two incidents that happened back to back in Nov ‘15 – The Beirut and the Paris tragedies with a day between them. Facebook rolled out Safety Check and a flag filter but only for Paris. Why?
It’s not just the Beirut bombings that got sidelined. People are right when they say it could have been implemented in other tragedies. The functionality was there circa April 2015 and Facebook has the resources and manpower to make it happen instantly. That’s a reasonable expectation from the 1.5 billion people who use the social network.
“You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world,” Zuckerberg wrote in a comment on Facebook. “We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”
We know the feature will get used more now as Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. What’s left to be seen is how the social giant is going to manage the skullduggery that is global politics.
This leaves us with an interesting conundrum
Let us consider for whom and what incidents Facebook will enable this feature. Take the example of conflict-ridden countries of the Middle East where war is a daily occurrence. There’s state-sponsored terrorism, and then there’s the non-state kind. There’s people vs dictatorships. And then we got a mind-numbing number of sectarian and tribal groupings to worry our heads about.
Imagine Facebook getting flak from governments for choosing what events warrant the ‘I’m safe and ok’ treatment. Of course this isn’t limited to the Middle East, but you can see how ‘confusing’ things can get when politics gets dragged in.
The flag filter issue that we haven’t spoken about? You can see all potential for abuse here. And you don’t even need Facebook filter for that when some simple web apps and Photoshop will suffice.
The tragedy here is that we’ve all drawn borders among us. This us-vs-them mentality is sure to exacerbate the boundaries that intolerant policy-makers are sure to capitalize on. It’s also part of the wider divide Daesh is aiming to cause between Muslims and non-Muslims. Sadly, expect social media to inflame intolerance amongst people with different philosophies in life. If we are lucky, keyboard warriors will remain just that.