by Geoff Gillette
In a bid to make people feel as though they have a communications lifeline during even the most stressful of situations, Facebook recently announced a new service called Safety Check.
First thought of by engineers in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the new service will serve as a means for Facebook users to let friends and family know they’re ok after a disaster situation and connect with other affected individuals.
According to the Facebook news article, the app will be available for Android, iOS, feature phones and desktop.
Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, sort of.
Safety Check’s ability to connect friends and family during an emergency situation is a great thing, make no mistake, but it covers only a small portion of the communication that needs to occur in a crisis, and showcases exactly how Facebook’s changes to the way information appears in your newsfeed has crippled its crisis communication apparatus.
In the wake of large scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina and high-tension emergency situations like the Sandy Hook school shootings, emergency agencies have found themselves hard-pressed to keep up with the constant demand for information from our 24/7 news cycle culture.
Many government agencies and first responders look to social media as a way to provide up-to-the-minute updates to a wide margin of people in an extremely efficient way. It allows individuals in crisis to feel connected to the agencies providing help, and friends and family far away to monitor situations and know that something is being done.
But with the changes to the algorithm governing how much of an organization’s posts actually make it to their follower’s newsfeeds, that channel of communication has been largely choked off or wholly dependent on the digital ‘word of mouth’ avenue of Facebook shares.
That is…unless you’re willing to pay.
As Facebook continues to look at ways to monetize their status as the big kid on the social media block, they’ve made it so that if an agency has a page and wants their posts to get to the majority of their followers, they have to pay for it through Promoted Posts.
The page admin can “boost” posts by paying Facebook to open the floodgates and put the post in more newsfeeds. You can tailor posts to only go to followers or friends of followers or you can set them to go to anyone within a specific geographic range. But again, there is a price to be paid. In even a small emergency situation (a hostage situation, a major traffic accident tying up the freeway), emergency agencies will need to post several updates per hour.
Agencies that rely on Facebook will be pumping out cash to get their message out, instead of using those funds for other, more important pursuits, like overtime pay to first responders or disaster recovery.
So the question really becomes, is Facebook a viable took for emergency communications? When there are other communications channels that can reach similar numbers of people without having to pay for each “boosted” post?
Twitter is one example. While it has still not risen to Facebook’s levels of use, Twitter is a solid method for communicating in an emergency. When an agency sends out a tweet, it goes to all of their followers, not a small fraction. One example of Twitter being used for good dissemination of emergency information was during the crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport.
Once notified of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (@NTSB) immediately began live-tweeting information. As NTSB Director of Public Affairs Kelly Nantel said, “We have found this to be successful in helping the media and community stay informed about rapidly changing events.”
In 2013, in an effort to capitalize on the rapid nature of tweeting and the usefulness of doing so in emergency situations, Twitter announced the start of Twitter Alerts. Government agencies can sign up for the alerts service, which acts to push messages out to subscribers’ phones when tweets are marked as alerts.
Another tool gaining ground in the area of law enforcement is Nixle. With Nixle, residents can sign up via their zip code to receive local alerts and information put out by participating law enforcement, school districts and government agencies. Nixle is proving to be an invaluable aid for law enforcement as it allows a multi-platform spread of messaging. E-mail, SMS and text messages can be sent out in the event of an emergency.
It also allows the public to engage with their first responders by exchanging information in real-time to give responders a better chance of handling a given situation by having more eyes reporting in.
Getting back to Facebook, let me stress that Safety Check is a good thing. It will give friends and family peace of mind when disaster strikes.
But for those affected by disaster and those trying to help, communications needs to be a two-way street. Facebook is only halfway there.
Should first responders be using social media? Where do you go for information in an emergency situation?