As if the struggle with fake news has not been hard enough for the social media network this year, false reports of a bombing in Central Bangkok triggered Facebook’s Safety Check feature on Tuesday. According to the Thai-based Khao Sod (Live News) the supposed incident happened around 9:00 PM local time in Bangkok – 9:00 AM in New York.
Reports of the bombing first surfaced on Facebook and were quickly spread by followers. At first glance, some of the reports appeared to be authentic, with one headline mimicking the BBC. Given that December is the peak of the tourist season in the Southeast Asian country, news of the bombing led to fear of the worst.
Political unrest in Bangkok
Another fact that led people to believe that the report was credible was that Thailand has become known for its prolonged political conflict. In fact political unrest ended with a military coup in 2014. The conflict, which is ostensibly between supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his opponents, has seen both parties stage massive rallies in Central Bangkok since 2005.
While most of these protests were peaceful, there were also incidents of violence including bombings and an armed intervention by the military in 2010. In addition, Thailand is home to a simmering insurgency in the country’s southernmost province and insurgents were linked to coordinated bombings in August.
A 2015 bombing of a shrine in the city’s center shook Bangkok to its core. The blast was carried out by ethnic Uighurs protesting China’s handling of the minority in their home country. Thailand is a favored tourist destination for mainland Chinese tour groups.
This backstory led to a perfect storm for Facebook, which has announced an initiative to combat the prevalence of false or misleading news stories being circulated on the social media site.
What went wrong?
In November, the company noted that the Safety Check system is monitored by an algorithm. The algorithm considers trending posts by users in a certain geographic area. According to an interview given by Facebook engineer, Peter Cottle, to CNET at the time of the announcement, the probability of a ‘false positive’ was very low as the company also used a third-party service to check the results of the algorithm.
However, Tuesday’s false positive warning proved that the safeguards did not work in this case. What is not clear is the reason why. In fact, the system has triggered false positives in the past. In March, the company issued a Safety Check notification to users in the U.K. and the U.S. After a reported following a bombing in Pakistan.
By Tuesday afternoon the company had issued a statement to The Verge. In the statement Facebook explained what happened.
“Safety Check was activated today in Thailand following an explosion. 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.”