Technology – is it a hero or villain at times of crisis?


I’m sure that I am not the only person whose heart softened when I checked my social media pages on Saturday morning — streams of blue, white and red tinted profile pictures, and posts strewn with hashtags of sympathy. The internet helped to spread international support and solidarity — and it didn’t stop there. During the immediate post-attack tremor, technology was used to bring Parisians to safety.

The Facebook “safety check” feature enabled 4.1 million people in Paris to immediately let their families and friends know they were safe.  This tool had previously been used positively in natural disasters, such as the Nepal earthquakes , yet the use of this feature after a man-made disaster was (controversially) a first for Facebook on Friday 13th.

The internet also became a means to help the people that were seeking safety after the attacks. Airbnb launched a portal that (quite literally) opened doors for the victims and their families, by providing free accommodation for those affected and in need of a place to stay — coincidently, Paris is the company’s largest market. Like Facebook, Airbnb previously helped to provide post-disaster aid in tragedies such as earthquakes and floods, but Friday 13th November was the first time that the site introduced the feature to help people affected by terrorist activities. The good news is that these tools were so effective, that the sites have enabled these features for all human disasters. In fact, Facebook has activated the feature again following a bombing in Nigeria.

The aftermath of the Paris attacks brought to light the value of technology in disaster relief. Tech companies demonstrated their ability to lend an immediate helping hand. But to what extent can these features be classed as “safe” tools?

It is widely acknowledged that the sites that host these safety tools are also used and abused by terror groups. Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are used as a medium to new members and publicise IS values. Disturbingly, IS sympathisers honoured the atrocities which took place in Paris by posting odious tweets under a hashtag loosely translating to “Paris is burning” or “Paris is on fire”.

Terrorists have manipulated social media platforms so much so, that Harlem Desir, the State Secretary for European Affairs, proposed an international framework earlier this year, in which Facebook and Twitter would share responsibility when their platforms are used to spread violent propaganda.

This being said, positive tech involvement in the post-attack trauma should certainly not be forgotten. The services that sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb provided were undeniably helpful. Recent events have proved technology to be a useful safety tool, whilst remaining a channel for people to instantly share and exchange information. As Friday’s events unfolded and the news updates came in, users were uploading video recordings and information onto social media feeds. These feeds became a source of first-hand information, shedding light on the catastrophes as they took place to the rest of the world. To see the devastation unfold online was to see the emotional and personal effects on ordinary people. Tech served as both a safety net and a platform of correspondence, it’s useful to know that these features can be deployed in any future disasters (knock on wood).