The Politics of Empathy and the Politics of Technology

Since 2010, when Google unveiled a crisis communication tool, People Finder, there have been many acts of terrorism around the world but only one instance where People Finder was mobilized: terrorism in Boston in 2013.

Last week, Facebook activated its own “Safety Check” feature for an act of terrorism for the Paris attacks, but not for Beirut last week or Ankara last month. In the future, they will, Facebook said.

These are not easy decisions with immediate right answers. In this case, the questions almost matter more than the answers. That’s because crisis communication is both incredibly valuable, and deeply political — yet another moment to observe the intertwining of technology and politics.

Last week, someone I know who hates Facebook considered rejoining it for one reason: the “Safety Check” activated after the Paris attacks. I understood her feelings. A month ago, I saw a frantic scramble online as people in Turkey tried to find out if their friends and loved ones had been caught up in the Ankara bombing by ISIS. Over one hundred people were killed and thousands were injured. Some people went to the hospitals solely to act as conduits for news on Twitter to confirm the identities of those affected. Waves of grief and relief combined as each item with news about survival meant that someone else’s child, friend, or spouse was dead. As the names of survivors and rumors circulated online, the pain of waiting for confirmation of their loved ones’ status was terrible. Facebook’s Safety Check will turn out to be an important tool that demonstrates the profoundly political nature of the choices made by the major Internet platforms.

I know from firsthand experience that, in the aftermath of a crisis, communication is an absolute necessity. On August 17, 1999, a few minutes past 3 am, I made one of the last phone calls anyone was able to make from Istanbul for a while. A powerful earthquake had just shaken the city. It felt like the train tracks had been transplanted right outside my window. I stepped outside of my building along with hundreds of other people gathering on the street. We had no idea where the epicenter of the earthquake was. Was the rest of Istanbul flattened? It had happened before. In 557. Also in 1509. Then there was 1894. And many others in the region, where continental plates hit up against each other.

I had a cell phone — something much rarer those days. I quickly dialed my mother who lives on the other side of the city. I said “hello” and heard her respond: “Zeynep?” Then the line went dead. That was all of the information both of us had about each other for days — that we had survived the initial shaking. I walked to a hospital a few miles away, where I knew that a doctor friend was on duty that night. They had generators. From the one working TV, I learned that the epicenter was in the childhood home that I had visited just a week before, and that the destruction was vast. Shortly afterward, I traveled to that region, accompanying rescue crews. I knew people had died in Istanbul; but didn’t know much about the fate of my own friends back home. Landlines did not work well for a long time after the quake, and people were not going into their potentially unsound houses anyway.

In the area I was in, where some of the worst destruction took place, I was constantly asked to transmit and relay information. Survivors wanted to let others know they were okay, and wanted to know who had died. Relatives who were unable to ascertain the fate of their loved ones were trying to travel to the destroyed area. I did my best to help. The roads were wrecked and hard to negotiate; and we needed to keep the few passable paths for supplies and ambulances. I remember thinking what we needed most was a public list of survivors’ names on the Internet — then newly spreading in Turkey — to comfort people, but mostly to stop them from trying to travel to the area. The communication networks could not handle everyone calling everyone else, or confirming in person, and the mangled roads could not support all who wanted to travel.

A decade later, in 2010, I attended a hackathon to build a centralized missing-person finder after the devastating Haiti earthquake. A functioning version went up over a weekend. I decided to start blogging, just so I could talk about it — my very first blog post, ever, is on using digital networks for crisis communication and logistics. Google soon created a more developed “Person Finder” Haiti. Google’s Person Finder was later deployed for multiple events including the earthquake in Van, Turkey in 2011, the Haiyan Typhoon in November 2013, and then for a strikingly different event: the Boston Marathon bombings.

As far as I know, Google has activated Person Finder for only one act of terrorism in all these years: Boston in 2013. I’m not sure how useful the system was for this event, but, though major communication networks did not go down, it’s always good to have a backup. Person Finder was activated for other calamities, but no other act of terrorism, no matter how many the casualties, for anywhere else in the world — as far as I know.

Facebook developed a similar Safety Check feature in 2014. Facebook is a natural home for this kind of many-to-many communication since it is the default social network for many people, even for people who don’t use it very much. Safety Check was activated for the Nepal earthquake in 2015. Obviously, this type of system doesn’t work as well in regions with less Internet connectivity, but it works better than most people think. Many people in rich countries underestimate how widespread some rudimentary form of Internet and Facebook really are — even more so in poorer places. Tools like Facebook are especially useful where communication is expensive and resources are limited — especially crucial since a single update on the platform communicates with so many. (It’s easier to “opt out” if you are well off in a place where all of your friends have phones, and time to call to everyone individually, and even travel. Many poor people around the world work 6–7 days of the week, and pay exorbitant (for them) charges for each call or text. Opting out of Facebook is often a luxury.)

Fast forward to last week’s Paris attacks when Facebook activated Safety Check for Parisians. I was grateful to be among the many millions of people who found out through Facebook Safety Check that their friends were safe. And immediately frustrated that this tool had not been available just a month ago when my Twitter feed was overwhelmed with people searching for news of their loved ones in Ankara. Or for Beirut last week when ISIS had killed so many. Or in Baghdad last month.

Facebook, facing immediate criticism from having excluded other major terrorist attacks from Safety Check, responded that “from now on,” Facebook would activate it for “other serious and tragic incidents” in the future although they would continue to exclude events they consider to be an “ongoing crisis.” As they posted:

During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.”

Sure enough, a week later, a bombing in Nigeria occurred and Safety Check was activated. In a post, Mark Zuckerberg said:

A loss of human life anywhere is a tragedy, and we’re committed to doing our part to help people in more of these situations… In times like this, it’s important to remind ourselves that despite the alarming frequency of these terrible events, violence is actually at an all-time low in history and continues to decline.

So now, Facebook will have to decide which incidents are “serious and tragic” versus which ones are “ongoing crises” where Safety Check would not be useful. Iraq is not officially at war, but suicide bombings there are almost horrifically routine. Their new policy raises many important questions that should be carefully considered. Will Baghdad bombings be considered endemic? How many in a year to declare something endemic or chronic? Are we just acknowledging that people in the regions of the world suffering from chronic crises have no way to feel “safe”? Who gets to check in? “Useful” as defined as useful to whom? Would you not want a “Safety Check” everyday if your loved one were trapped in a region with a dangerous and fast-moving epidemic like Ebola?

These questions go to the heart of the many divides in the world, between rich and poor; haves and have nots; those who count and those who do not. Who is included in the hierarchy of empathy? Who is not?

In many ways, even the divide between “natural” and “human-made” mass casualty events is a political divide as well. A huge earthquake in Japan or in Chile kills dozens, and sometimes even thankfully less, while the 1999 earthquake in Turkey killed at least 17,000 mostly because of shoddy building construction standards. Mud slides often kill the poorest who are forced to live in the least safe areas on the sides of hills. HIV became a chronic, but treatable, disease in wealthy countries. Sub-Saharan Africa was ravaged by HIV and AIDS largely because poor countries could not afford jacked-up drug prices, and the trade agreements engineered by rich countries blocked access to affordable, life-saving generics. What constitutes an “unquestionable” natural disaster, save perhaps a meteor falling?

Should Safety Check notifications be pushed to everyone with people deciding for themselves if they need to check in? Or should they only be allowed to those who geo-tag themselves or whose IP locates them at the point of crisis? What if they use a VPN? Should they be allowed to self-declare? What about the massive amounts of spam that will result if any one of Facebook’s 1.5 billion users is allowed to check in? What if they are only a visitor to an area, but need to check in after a terrorist event or disaster?

Then there’s the question of automated changing of profile pictures to express sympathy, a form of emotional disaster relief. We first saw this phenomenon when Facebook created an easy way for people to apply a rainbow overlay to their profile pictures to support and celebrate a civil rights win: marriage equality. Even if you approve of rainbowing profiles, you have to acknowledge that by encouraging rainbows, Facebook was making another political choice, like the way Safety Check was a political decision.

Similarly, the adding the colors of the French flag was made an easy profile change after the Paris attacks. Facebook was not the only technology company to adopt the French flag. Amazon put “Solidarité” right above luggage and Turkish coffee cups — the latter for me, obviously.

Some French people though felt uneasy, because of what they said was the French Tricolore’s association with a far-right political party that trades in open racism. I am not an expert on the nuances of French domestic politics; but I can tell you there would have been no simple answers about whether to display a Turkish flag in a Facebook profile after the recent bombing of a “peace rally.” In Ankara, the victims were from a pro-Kurdish political party opposing government policies, a group that has suffered much since the transition to the Republic symbolized by the flag. Why not display a peace sign then? Surely a peace sign is neutral? That selection too, is a political choice, and would soon generate other controversies.

These are difficult decisions. Activating Safety Check constantly would lessen its value as a signal. Right now, it functions as a forceful push, and you get a “notify” on your phone when a friend in the affected area checks in as safe. Getting hundreds of these notifications per day would reduce its efficacy. However, not getting the notification when you were worried about someone would also be a problem. This type of system requires decisions to be made about when to activate, and when to hold back.

I would personally like to see a Safety Check notification on top of the newfeeds of 1 billion people every time Aleppo, Syria is barrel-bombed, to remind the world about the awful conditions that Syrian refugees are fleeing from. But such a feature would not function so much as a “safety check,” but rather a political call for empathy, which is my own agenda, my own politics. However, that’s exactly what happened when Google used Person Finder only for Boston Marathon bombing: they made a political decision. And, that’s exactly what happened when Facebook realized the value of the tool after the Paris bombing, but not for the events in Beirut or Ankara that took place shortly before the Paris attacks. This despite enormous similarities in the events — ISIS suicide bombers attacking vibrant cities killing large number of innocents.

The people who run the Internet platforms are making calls about who they think is deserving of empathy. That makes their decisions thoroughly political. The fact that I sympathize with the challenge of making these decisions is not what is important. Rather, I am pointing out that none of these are decisions are automatic outputs emanating from the technology itself, nor are they independent of technology and its characteristics. There are genuine constraints and issues about what’s possible, easy and straightforward to implement. The geo-fencing versus spam issue, for example, cannot be resolved without discussing the Internet’s architecture. Encryption cannot be deactivated for some people (the bad guys) without making all of internet insecure, for example. The politics of technology is politics, but it’s never just politics.

In the news media, it’s time for the “technology beats” to move away from being about gadget reviews. Just call them “gadget reviews” and create real technology beats that include the politics of technology. In STEM fields in higher education, there might be a single course called “ethics of computing“ or “social impact” in the whole curriculum. It’s time to integrate politics and ethics into more stages of STEM education. People in the social sciences, humanities and especially in policy, need to become more familiar with the specifics of each technology. It’s time for all of the platforms to become explicit and more open about their political choices.

It’s technology all the way down; but it’s also politics all the way down. It was never anything else. After Paris, maybe that’s easier to see.