Facebook today announced that it will introduce AMBER Alerts to Canada through its feed, informing users when a missing child has been reported in their area.
The social media giant says it hopes the geo-targeted alerts will help expand the reach of the program, as it claims to have in at least one instance in the United States, where a similar partnership was struck in January.
“We know that when a child is abducted, the most valuable thing we can do is get information out to the public as fast as possible,” said Facebook managing director Jordan Banks.
AMBER Alerts are named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Her homicide remains unsolved. Today, an AMBER alert is issued only under a specific set of conditions, including that the victim must be under 18, and that police must believe said victim is in imminent danger.
Facebook’s participation will without doubt be welcome, but the fact is the AMBER Alerts program is already enormously successful using its current delivery methods, which rely heavily on partnerships with radio and TV broadcasters. According to the RCMP, between 2003 and 2012, 96% of children who were the subject of an AMBER Alert were returned safely to their families.
Today’s announcement from Facebook, however, could have a positive impact far beyond the realm of missing children.
We are all at least somewhat aware of the colossal reach of Facebook. As of March of this year, the undisputed social media king had 1.4-billion active accounts. That’s one-fifth of the earth’s population. In the developed world, that number is much higher and Canadians are amongst the world’s most loyal users of the site; a recent survey found 59% of all us have a Facebook account.
Twenty-five of the users—or more than 60 percent — had no idea that there even was a filtering algorithm, let alone one that looks at more than a thousand data signals to determine what to show a user.
Perhaps we aren’t always conscious of Facebook’s enormous reach because of its personalization. The Facebook you see is different from the one I see and different again from the one your neighbour sees. Yet many of us remain unaware of this fact.
Fusion’s Alexis C. Madrigal recently wrote about a study of 40 Facebook users who were queried about the site’s filters.
“Twenty-five of the users—or more than 60 percent — had no idea that there even was a filtering algorithm, let alone one that looks at more than a thousand data signals to determine what to show a user,” said Madrigal.
Facebook filters users feeds, it says, because an unfiltered feed would be overwhelming. But others argue that the company’s intentions are not so altruistic. They think Facebook shows less in its feed in order to bait users into paying to promote them to a wider audience.
Facebook’s balance sheet aside, what would happen if it were to, temporarily, turn this algorithm off and display the same message to everyone at once? What we would then see is the largest broadcaster in the history of the world, by orders of magnitude. This could prove enormously valuable in the dissemination of information about wide spread disease outbreaks and natural disasters.
Recently, San Diego County and San Diego State University partnered to research a social media-based platform for disseminating emergency warnings to the public. The pair found the task was easier said than done.
“We found that during disaster events, the information landscape of social media is very noisy,” said San Diego State geography professor Ming-Hsiang Tsou. “The important messages from official agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services were not very visible.
In recent years, Facebook has faced criticism for privacy issues, for the inability of users to delete accounts, for its alleged harmful role in stalking and marital breakdown and divorce, and for its facilitation of cyber-bullying. But the company’s AMBER Alerts partnership shows the unambiguous good that can come from its unparalleled reach. Let’s hope it is the first of many similar announcements.