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Facebook Claims to Save Lives

December 19, 2011

By Stella Toonen

“Facebook wants to fight the number of suicides” it said on Dutch online newspaper Nu.nl last Wednesday. It sounds like an honourable project, but thinking about it more critically one might start to wonder how they actually want to achieve such a thing.

The idea is that users can send a notification to the Facebook team when one of their friends posts a suicidal message, and Facebook will then personally contact this person. In the case that the notification is serious, the author of the message will receive an e-mail with a telephone number and a link to a live chat, in which he (or she) can express his feelings and talk about the solutions.

Research of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has shown that young people prefer to use an online chat for talking about their problems than to make an actual appointment with a psychologist. In that view Facebook would lower the threshold for people to start searching for professional help.

But at the same time it also seems to create many problems for the Facebook team. Where will they for instance set the border between a serious suicidal message and a fake one? What if they ignore a message that was actually not a fake one? And if the victim still commits suicide after the chat session with the Facebook psychologists, could Facebook then be charged guilty of motivating this person? There is no one who could prove that the person would have killed himself if he had not been on the chat website.

The main question is what Facebook actually tries to win by it? They do not get an award if they save people’s life; they will only have to hire more people to check all the notifications for relevance and to translate the chat messages of non-English speaking Facebook users. What is the motivation behind what seems a completely altruistic act then?

Would it not be more appropriate if Facebook did not interfere in the other people’s lives at all? Does the network not try to create a place where people are in touch with each other, so that if someone posts a depressed message others see it and try to help their friend? Is that not exactly how social media are supposed to work in such cases? Where is this world going if this kind of social involvement has to be taken over by internet companies?

Facebook’s new suicide prevention system is definitely an application we are going to hear more about in the future, either about its removal or about various lawsuits connected to the notification system, because the development seems to be doomed to fail.

Categories: Opinion
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