Please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook

Let me begin by saying that Facebook’s Crisis Response pages do a lot of good. They are a locus for donations and offers of help. But that said, for the love of humanity, when something bad happens, please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook.

They don’t mean to prey on our anxieties. They mean to assuage them. But all they do is reinforce the incorrect notion that the world is a terrifying place where unpredictable awful things happen frequently; they worsen the problem by attempting to treat the symptom.

Consider, for instance, “The Tornado in Ottawa, Ontario and Gatineau, Quebec, Canada” a few months ago. As a former Ottawa resident I have multiple Facebook friends there. Todd and Jennifer marked themselves safe; but what about Joe? Stefan? Stephane? What happened to them?

Yeah, they’re fine, thanks, because that region has a population of 1.3 million, and while it is a shame that six of them were hospitalized as a result of that tornado (which hit Canada frequently) when you do the math you quickly realize that that is equal to one out of every 216,000 people. If a single person were hospitalized as a result of an incident in a single town of 216,000, would Facebook call on every resident of that town to mark themselves safe?

I mean, if Facebook did do that, why, your feed would be a nonstop deluge of Crises from which people are Marked Safe. The world would seem like a cauldron of terrors, and any unknown much too scary to venture into, full of things which might harm you and your friends and family. You would be fearful of other places, and maybe eventually, almost logically, by extension, people from other places, too.

Our brains are well known to weigh our fears based in part on how vivid they are rather than how likely they are. So we worry more about vivid events than actually fearsome ones. Would Facebook call on New Yorkers to mark themselves safe if a terrorist attack killed 15 people in a busy subway station? Of course they would. It’s not even a question, is it.

But 15 is fewer than the number of New Yorkers killed in traffic every single month. Is Facebook calling on New Yorkers to mark themselves as “Safe From Cars” every month? Of course not. That’s a laughable concept. But the risk of that is greater than the risk of any given New Yorker being killed in that hypothetical terror attack.

And – here’s the key – when Facebook asks you to mark yourself safe, and reports that you’re safe to all your Facebook friends, it may reduce some specific anxiety in the short term, but it does so at the cost of increasing generalized anxiety — about the world and everything in it — in the long term.

There are of course some crises so awful, so huge, so widespread, that this no longer applies; where the risk to any individual is in fact much higher than, say, the annual risk of dying in a car crash. If Facebook reduced its calls to mark yourself safe to such actual crises, then none of the above would apply. Let’s hope that one day they ratchet down their anxiety-inducing algorithms and do just that.