Safety Net(work)

Following the earthquake in Nepal, social media sites have utilized “Safety Checks” to help members reconnect, with questionable impacts on their users’ privacy.

The aftermath of the recent earthquake in Nepal exposed an interesting relationship between the role of social media and social media users’ safety. In 2014, Facebook introduced a new feature called “Safety Check” that will allow a user to notify friends about his or her safety if Facebook finds that person in a place where a natural disaster occurred. Furthermore, Facebook and other social media sites have enabled users to easily click on a button to donate relief money to affected areas. While it’s commendable that social media sites are trying to ensure the safety of their users in cases of natural disasters and promote awareness, the role of social media gets sticky in these situations, especially when it comes to privacy.

At first, it’s easy to see how this feature would benefit our social media-crazed society in times of disaster. The role of social media is to connect users to other users, and that’s exactly what this Facebook feature does within the context of a natural disaster. Regarding the relevance and importance of this feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “when disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.” While it’s impossible for social media to be a cure-all in situations like this, it’s nice that it is eradicating some of the worry associated with catastrophic events.

However, this feature has the potential to extend beyond natural disasters. A business commentator for Fortune magazine argues that this feature can be extended to smaller-scale emergencies, such as a fire in a building, and that it will help the first responders know if someone is still in the building and let users know if there is a fire in their vicinity. Far be it for someone to argue that this would negatively affect users, but this would have interesting implications for first responders. Would they have to sync their communication devices to Facebook (or another social media site)? This epitomizes how social media is infiltrating every aspect of our lives, supposedly for the better. But is it, really? Social media is not the panacea for society’s problems and, frankly, it shouldn’t be.

While features like Facebook’s “Safety Check” prove to be relevant and valuable tools for social media users, the problem with privacy still pervades this feature. Most people already know Facebook tracks and records users’ frequent locations and even inserts ads based on that information. Even though users can adjust their privacy settings, a report done by the Belgian Data Protection Authority and reported on by the Wall Street Journal argues that Facebook and many other social media sites have privacy settings that are difficult to maneuver, essentially making users jump through hoops to protect their privacy. While it might be helpful to provide some personal information in times of emergencies, users should have the right to easily update their privacy settings to make their profile more secure. In this increasingly digital age that we live in, social media is bound to have a profound effect on society, even when it comes to emergencies. However, such a profound effect commands users to proceed cautiously and wisely with what is shared online.

Although social media should not be the remedy for society’s problems, it can have a positive impact, especially when it comes to raising money for relief after a natural disaster. Time magazine reported that Facebook raised over $10 million in just two days. For most people, the one-stop convenient click of a button makes this tool especially effective for raising money. The fact that it appears at the top of the page when a user logs in to Facebook also helps. While social media has definitely pervaded many aspects of our lives, in this case, it has done so in a positive way by helping other countries and people in an effective manner, despite previous qualms about social media’s sometimes invasive nature.