Facebook’s Safety Check feature has been a helpful tool when deployed during natural and “more human” disasters in the past, but yesterday it was activated for an explosion in Bangkok, Thailand, that never took place, helping spread fake news stories in the process.
Facebook's Safety Check allows users in affected areas to confirm to friends and loved ones that they are okay. The activation yesterday was the result of its algorithms responding to local reports and social media chatter about a man throwing “ping pong bombs” or “giant firecrackers” in the direction of Government House, which is where the country’s Prime Minister works.
The feature's status window stated an “explosion” had taken place somewhere in Thailand's capital, citing “media sources” as confirmation of the incident. But there were no links to any stories about what actually happened; instead, there was a link to a (now deleted) Bangkokinformer.com article about the 2015 Erawan Shrine bombing, along with blog post that roughly translated to: “When your friend digs up news about a bombing that happened a year ago to share on Facebook, so very annoying.”
The social network said it is investigating how these links appeared on the Safety Check page.
The company was quick to correct publications that claimed the Safety Check had been activated as a result of the fake news stories. “As with all safety check activations, Facebook relies on a trusted third party to first confirm the incident and then on the community to use the tool and share with friends and family,” said a spokesperson.
There’s no doubt that the safety feature is useful during times of crisis, but incidents like this can cause distress and confusion. Facebook continues to be criticized over the fake news stories that appear on the platform; if people think the Safety Check is somehow tied to these false reports, some users may stop trusting it altogether.