Facebook Safety Check Falsely Says a Bomb Exploded in Bangkok

At first, it appeared the algorithm used unreliable and fake news sources to 'confirm' the nonexistent explosion.
Facebook Safety Check Falsely Says a Bomb Exploded in Bangkok
Image credit: Bloomua | Shutterstock
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Facebook's Safety Check program incorrectly said there was an explosion in Bangkok, Thailand, The Independent reported. For an hour beginning at 9 p.m. local time on Dec. 27th, anyone in Thailand's capital city saw reports of an explosion and a prompt to mark themselves as safe. However, there was no actual bomb explosion in Bangkok.

Facebook's Safety Check system is powered, in partby an algorithm that pulls from user posts and news sources to determine whether a catastrophic event has occurred. At first, it appeared the algorithm used unreliable and fake news sources to "confirm" the nonexistent explosion.

Channel NewsAsia correspondent Saksith Saiyasombut shared a photo of the news stories Facebook displayed with the Safety Check; the top hit was a news-scraping site, not a source of trusted original reporting, he said.

Facebook disabled the safety check at roughly 10 p.m. local time. We've reached out to the social networking site for more information on tonight's false positive in Bangkok and will update this story as we hear back.

Fake news has been a thorn in Facebook's side for months now. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently rolled out an updated system to fight the propagation of untrue and misleading news articles on the site, working with third-party fact-checkers like Snopes, ABC News and Politifact to flag suspicious stories.

Update: Facebook told The Verge that the fake-news links were not tied to today's Safety Check. Instead, on Dec. 27, a man threw ping pong-sized firecrackers that looked like explosives at a government building in Bangkok; there was no explosion. However, the incident prompted Facebook's Safety Check.

"Safety Check was activated today in Thailand following an explosion," Facebook said in a statement to The Verge. "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."

Facebook has not yet responded to Engadget's request for clarification about how it intends to prevent similar situations in the future.

Update 2: Engadget received the same statement from a Facebook spokesperson.

To clarify, Facebook's Safety Check system employs two algorithms: the first monitors an emergency newswire for reports directly from police departments and other official sources, and the second scours the social networking site for people talking about any reported incidents. If enough people are talking about it, Safety Check is engaged.

In this case, Facebook's algorithms were responding to local reports of a man throwing small explosives at a government building, and users discussing the incident. Though the Safety Check alert said there was an explosion, no bombs were actually detonated in Bangkok today.