In October 2014, Facebook introduced a Safety Check feature to allow people to quickly alert loved ones of their condition and whereabouts following a crisis. It was inspired by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 15,000 people dead in Japan and another 6,000 injured.
The feature was first turned on on April 25, 2015 following a deadly earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,00 people. It was also utilized during the Nice shooting attack that killed 130 people last summer and during the Pulse Nightclub massacre that left 49 people dead in June of this year.
This week, the same feature has been utilized during the protests in Charlotte and it is completely uncalled for.
If you’ve checked in as safe in Charlotte (as 160 of my 399 friends in the area have), you shouldn’t feel bad about it. I get it. The city is in a state of emergency. A citywide curfew is in effect. Dramatic footage of riot police, tear gas and property destruction dominates every news outlet. A 26-year-old protestor was shot and killed. The National Guard was deployed to deescalate the situation, taking to the streets in military vehicles that make the city look like a war zone. It looks unlike everyday Charlotte and it looks very threatening.
But it’s important to understand the context of where our event lands in the grand scheme of global crises that rely on the Safety Check feature in times of very real, imminent danger and mind-boggling death counts.
Buzzfeed reported that the Safety Check feature was initiated in Charlotte by people in the area, not turned on remotely by Facebook as has been the case in the past. It’s the first time it has ever been used in a protest.
The widespread utilization of Facebook Safety Check by users in areas of Charlotte that remain completely unaffected by this week’s centralized and isolated protests shows me how quickly and vastly panic can spread at times of unrest. I’ve seen people checking in safe as far away as Huntersville.
I understand how footage of an event like this can look bigger and scarier than it does on the ground. And I know this because I stood in the middle of it on Wednesday and Thursday night.
Looking back at coverage of Charlotte on CNN or even playing back my own live streams from the night, I’ve felt a very real disconnect between my firsthand experience inside the protests and the secondhand footage I consumed on the outside. Even if that footage was produced by me, I’ve found that watching it on a screen makes it look worse. It’s hard to explain but I understand how those of you watching here or your loved ones watching from afar would feel a need to share or to know we’re all safe.
But you don’t need to check in on Facebook. I don’t say this to minimize the unbelievable weight of this event on the city of Charlotte. It is enormous and at times the danger has been very, very real for some people. But I do think it’s important to look critically at what you see and understand that none of it shows the whole picture.
Because if it did, we’d see very clearly without the need for a Safety Check that almost everyone in Charlotte is already safe.