Safety Check poses own threat

Fea­ture brings a cul­ture of hy­per­vig­i­lance

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - AARON BALICK

LON­DON Bridge is a brisk 25-minute walk from my flat. On Satur­day night, I heard the sirens.

By the time the news be­gan to ar­rive in frag­ments, the no­ti­fi­ca­tions started on my Face­book page, let­ting me know that “so-and-so has marked them­selves safe on Face­book”.

When I clicked through I was con­fronted with: “The At­tack in Lon­don: tell friends that you’re safe.”

Nat­u­rally, I was glad to hear that my friends and loved ones were safe. At the same time, I had no de­sire to use the fea­ture my­self. As the no­ti­fi­ca­tions mounted, my re­sis­tance grew.

Later I re­ceived an­other no­ti­fi­ca­tion. This time, a par­tic­u­lar friend, it ap­pears, wanted to know if I was safe, but chose not to call or text.

On the face of it, it makes per­fect sense. Why al­low friends and loved ones to won­der if you’re okay for even a sec­ond – when you can just let them know you’re out of dan­ger? But this Face­book fea­ture is more prob­lem­atic than it may seem.

The vast ma­jor­ity of us in Lon­don are safe – but the Face­book “safety check” para­dox­i­cally makes us feel like dan­ger is our de­fault set­ting when some­thing like Satur­day’s ter­ror at­tack oc­curs nearby.

Sherry Turkle, a re­searcher at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Technology (MIT), notes how mo­bile tech­nolo­gies tether us to­gether such that we’ve lost our ca­pac­ity to feel se­cure un­less we’re in con­stant con­tact. Par­ents, for ex­am­ple, who used to have to trust that their chil­dren were OK for hours at a time, can now text them in­ces­santly. While this may seem un­ob­jec­tion­able, it im­plic­itly com­mu­ni­cates a lack of con­fi­dence in their child’s ba­sic safety – ul­ti­mately threat­en­ing their de­vel­op­ing sense of self­care and au­ton­omy.

This can equally be ap­plied to other fam­ily mem­bers, friends and ro­man­tic part­ners – the abil­ity to check in con­stantly fu­els our anx­i­ety that if we don’t hear back straight away some­thing bad must have hap­pened.

From what I un­der­stood about the at­tack, my as­sump­tion was that my friends were prob­a­bly OK. I hope that they would also as­sume that I was safe un­less they heard oth­er­wise. For events on the scale of Satur­day, the Face­book Safety Check re­verses this as­sump­tion. It cre­ates an im­plicit sup­po­si­tion that we are not safe un­til we let peo­ple know that we are. It cre­ates a cul­ture of hyper-vig­i­lance that un­der­mines our ca­pac­ity to feel rel­a­tively se­cure about our en­vi­ron­ment.

This is not to say that there aren’t real risks – how­ever the risk of be­ing killed or harmed in a ter­ror­ist at­tack in the UK is still very low.

If you wanted to build a Face­book safety checker with ref­er­ence to risk, you may be bet­ter off check­ing in as safe af­ter com­mut­ing by bi­cy­cle or driv­ing on a high­way – both are more likely to re­sult in a causal­ity.

There will be in­con­solable grief and worry about those who were in­jured or killed in Satur­day’s at­tack. But we must ask our­selves, did the safety check do any­thing to help them? For all the re­as­sur­ance it gave oth­ers not at all associated with those hor­rific events, those who were there were not safe, and their loved one’s in­abil­ity to con­tact them, must have been a ter­ri­ble or­deal.

This sense of fear will have been shared by many oth­ers in their own state of panic be­cause, for what­ever rea­son, their loved one wasn’t marked as “safe”. The de­ploy­ment of such a fea­ture dur­ing events like Satur­day night’s at­tack may in­crease a user’s per­sonal stake in the in­ci­dent, lead­ing them to en­gage more deeply with the so­cial net­work than usual. This is no doubt a good thing for Face­book’s stats but I ques­tion whether it serves the pub­lic good. For events that truly af­fect a huge swathe of peo­ple in an area – an earth­quake, a tsunami, a dirty bomb – the sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent and a safety check makes more sense.

By treat­ing the events of Satur­day in the same fash­ion, we el­e­vate those who wish to sow dis­cord, and ul­ti­mately give them ex­actly what they want.

Aaron Balick is the au­thor of The Psy­cho­dy­nam­ics of So­cial Net­work­ing and is the di­rec­tor of Still­point Spa­ces Lon­don, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that en­gages psy­cho­log­i­cal think­ing out­side the con­sult­ing room. – The In­de­pen­dent

DAN­GER­OUS: Face­book chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zuckerberg said they would em­ploy 3 000 peo­ple to re­view videos of crime and sui­cides fol­low­ing mur­ders shown live on the web­site. Face­book has a fea­ture called Safety Checker.

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