Paris vs. Beirut: Why didn't Facebook offer Safety Check for both attacks?

Some have complained that Facebook's 'safety check' feature wasn't offered in Lebanon after bombings there. Is there a Western standard and a Middle Eastern standard?

AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
Hawraa Taleb weeps near her maternal cousin Haidar Mustafa, a three-year-old who was wounded in Thursday's twin suicide bombings, as he sleeps on a bed at the Rasoul Aazam Hospital in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Haidar's parents Hussein and Leila were killed in the blast as they were parking their car when one of two suicide attackers blew himself up in a southern Beirut suburb near their vehicle.

As terrorist attacks rocked Paris Friday night in six different venues and over the course of three hours, a safety feature released by Facebook offered some remedial relief: anyone with friends in Paris was notified of their status as soon as it was updated by a green verification checkmark.

Facebook’s Safety Check was first introduced last year, a product spawned by the Disaster Message Board used when the devastating tsunami struck Japan in 2011.

“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,” the team wrote last October. “These events have taught us a lot about how people use Facebook during disasters and we were personally inspired to continue work on the Disaster Message Board to incorporate what we’ve learned.”

Safety Check is offered globally for Android, iOS, feature phones and desktop users – the feature received high praise from media and citizens to reach loved ones in Paris.

But the absence of Safety Check in Lebanon Thursday prompted some to express outrage in social media:  Why hadn’t Safety Check been offered during a double suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 37 people and wounded 200 more – just one day before the Paris attack.

“Paris is a tragedy. Beirut is a tragedy. And the fact that Beirut ‘matters’ less than Paris is a tragedy,” one Twitter user wrote.

“This is what corporate western bias looks like,” wrote another Twitter user.

The two incidents have obvious differences: the Parisian attackers went after ‘soft targets’ like concert venues and restaurants and the attacks were brutal, unpredictable and exceptionally random. Beirut’s bombings were more ostensibly religious targets: the bombers went after a district long dominated by Hezbollah, and directly attacked a Shiite mosque and a meeting. A suicide bomber also terrorized a Shiite funeral in Baghdad yesterday killing another 19.

France and Lebanon, however, share a gruesome history of being an ISIS target. Friday’s attacks in Paris were just nine months after the brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters. And Beirut has seen a series of suicide bombings – with 14 bombings between July 2013 and June 2014 that left nearly 100 dead.

The Paris attacks were the first time Facebook turned on its Safety Check for a terrorist attack. The five previous deployments - all this year - were after earthquakes (in Afghanistan, Chile and Nepal) and major storms (in the South Pacific and the Philippines). 

Still, many are raising the question over what standards Facebook is using to decide when it enables its Safety Check.

The International Business Times reports that Facebook issued this statement Saturday afternoon:

Safety Check is a relatively new feature and until yesterday we had only activated it in the wake of natural disasters. The product will continue to evolve as we learn more about how it’s used during different crises. We hope to never be confronted with a situation like this again, but if we are, we are of course open to activating the tool given how reassuring it has been for people in Paris.”

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