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Facebook’s safety check after LIRR crash causes confusion

An LIRR train accident at Brooklyn's Atlantic Terminal

An LIRR train accident at Brooklyn's Atlantic Terminal activated Facebook's safety check feature, prompting local users of the social media site to notify friends that they were safe on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Credit: Facebook

An LIRR train accident at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal Wednesday was the latest incident to raise questions about when Facebook’s “safety check” feature should be activated.

More than 100 people were injured when an LIRR train crashed through the bumper block at the end of the tracks at Atlantic Terminal around 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Injuries were largely minor; Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters that the most severe injury was a wounded leg. Facebook’s algorithms, however, labeled it a crisis.

The incident triggered Facebook’s Safety Check feature, which prompted users to mark themselves “safe” or ask about friends’ safety. The feature is community generated, selecting users based on geographic location.

It is typically used to bring some order to the news surrounding a perceived disaster or terror attack, and to help social media users know that loved ones are safe.

In dense Brooklyn, the feature’s use confused some social media users who were not LIRR commuters, though a handful were appreciative.

“I feel silly marking myself safe for the LIRR derailment but now ppl [people] on Facebook keep asking,” user @aymeeleeah tweeted from Manhattan.

The company introduced the feature in 2014, and it’s been used successfully as news unfolds about deadly events, including the terror attack at Paris’ Bataclan concert hall in 2015, when 130 people were killed.

In 2015, however, Facebook began using an algorithm instead of company employees to trigger the check-ins, a Facebook spokesman said Wednesday. A third-party source can notify Facebook of an event and then, based on the level of interest in a particular community, Facebook’s systems may offer users the option to mark themselves safe or ask about others, the spokesman said.

The spokesman said the company stood by the change, even as it has faced criticism over its use in less dire situations. In December, misunderstood posts and a false news story turned a minor street protest in Bangkok into a fictional major explosion and very real confusion after the safety check feature was triggered.

“We believe people closest to a disaster should play a bigger role in deciding when Safety Check is most helpful,” the spokesman said. “If a lot of people in the area are talking about the incident, they may be invited to mark themselves safe, and invite others to do the same, through Safety Check.”

Dozens of New Yorkers and Long Islanders said Facebook prompted them to check in Wednesday after the train crash at the Brooklyn terminal, even though injuries were minor and some users did not ride the LIRR.

Jonathan Milenko, of Manhattan, said he saw others checking in but didn’t feel it was warranted given the circumstances of the incident.

“The victims were primarily Long Island Rail Road commuters,” Milenko said. “I had a few friends in Brooklyn who checked in to let me know they’re OK. But none of them were likely to have been on that train in the first place.”

Bay Shore resident Alex De Orio said he appreciated that the feature was available, but felt its use Wednesday was a misfire. Dozens of his friends checked in Wednesday, he said.

“It was a big accident and I want to be respectful to those involved, but I really don’t think it was necessary,” De Orio, 31, said. “If it had been an event like Hurricane Sandy, I’d say absolutely, it’s appropriate, but that’s not what this was.”

Some in the area near the Atlantic Terminal, however, expressed gratitude for their friends’ concern. Others outside of the metropolitan area were relieved to see friends use the Facebook feature.

Anthony Nugent, who lived in the East Village before moving to Réunion, a small island near Madagascar, urged his friends in Brooklyn to complete the safety check on Facebook.

“I made a lot of friends in New York, so when I heard about the incident, I was scared for them,” said Nugent, 24. “I just wanted to be sure that they were safe.”

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