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Facebook Asks Users Far From Pakistan if They Are in Harm's Way

Facebook Asks Users Far From Pakistan if They Are in Harm’s Way

Due to a bug in Facebook’s ‘safety check’ feature, users far from Sunday’s deadly explosion in Pakistan were mistakenly asked if they were in harm’s way.
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Due to a bug in Facebook’s ‘safety check’ feature, users far from Sunday’s deadly explosion in Pakistan were mistakenly asked if they were in harm’s way.


Photo:

jonathan nackstrand/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A Facebook Inc. function designed to let people tell friends and family they are safe after a disaster mistakenly asked users far from Sunday’s deadly explosion in Pakistan if they were in harm’s way.

The messages resulted from a bug in Facebook’s “safety check” feature, which, when activated, allows Facebook users to mark themselves as safe on their profiles if they are near a natural disaster or bombing. The errant messages on Sunday reached some Facebook users in places as far away as New York and Washington, D.C. with texts and notifications asking if they were harmed by the explosion in Lahore, Pakistan, which killed at least 65 people.

Texts from Facebook asked: “Have you been affected by the explosion?” according to screenshots posted by users on Twitter. While Facebook smartphone notifications referenced Lahore, at least some text messages it sent didn’t specify where the explosion took place, prompting momentary alarm for some users. One Twitter user wrote: “Thankfully I’m nowhere near the #Lahore bombing. Facebook Safety Check gave me a fright for sec making me think something nearby happened.”

It isn’t clear how many people received the mistaken notifications. Facebook, in a post on its site Sunday, said: “Unfortunately, many people not affected by the crisis received a notification asking if they were okay. This kind of bug is counter to the product’s intent. We worked quickly to resolve the issue and we apologize to anyone who mistakenly received the notification.”

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to elaborate on what caused the bug.

When Facebook activates the safety check feature, it sends users it detects to be in the area a message asking if they are safe. The users can then use the tool to indicate on their profiles that they are unharmed, and can also mark others as safe. The information is only visible within a user’s Facebook network.

Facebook introduced the safety check tool in October 2014, initially only for natural disasters like earthquakes. The terrorist attacks in Paris last November marked the first time Facebook enabled the tool for violent attacks. Facebook said 4.1 million people used the feature within 24 hours after that attack.

The service has been widely praised, but sometimes controversial. Following the Paris attack, some users questioned why it hadn’t been used in other cases, such as suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, around the same time. Facebook at the time said that it planned to use the feature more widely. It has activated the feature eight times so far this year, including in a number of violent attacks, according to the spokeswoman.

Those include last week’s attack in Brussels, although Facebook was criticized for waiting too long to enable the feature. The feature was turned on several hours after the blasts occurred at 8 a.m. local time.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com