Facebook’s suicide-screening efforts admirable, but lack transparency

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Updated: January 3, 2019 2:17:57 AM

Facebook’s suicide-screening efforts sound admirable but, mired in a lack of transparency, they do little to restore its credibility.

While Facebook’s capacity to effect a positive change—in terms of curbing suicides—is significant, its efforts need to be transparent and open to scrutiny.

Around the world, a suicide occurs every 40 seconds—and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds, as per WHO data. Facebook, the social media giant that is being investigated by regulators the world over, has been, since the latter half of 2017, using algorithms and user reports to flag possible suicide threats. Facebook’s algorithms scan posts, comments and videos of users for indications of immediate suicide risk. When a post is flagged, by the technology or a concerned user, human reviewers at the company who are empowered warn local law enforcement. The New York Times reports that possible suicide threat alerts have been sent to police officers from Massachusetts to Mumbai and, in a Facebook post in November, Mark Zuckerberg said the new tool has already intervened about 3,500 times.

Facebook, for “privacy reasons”, doesn’t track the outcomes of its calls to the police. And it has not disclosed exactly how its reviewers decide whether to call emergency responders. Therefore, the public does not know what information Facebook collects, how it perceives threats, and whether its actions are appropriate given its estimations of risk. Neither is there an option for all users—suicidal or otherwise—to opt out of data collection. Four police reports from four Facebook-flagged suicide threats obtained by The Times show that only one case was deemed actionable. While Facebook’s capacity to effect a positive change—in terms of curbing suicides—is significant, its efforts need to be transparent and open to scrutiny.

After all, there are health researchers out there who are transparently attempting to study suicide risk such as the US’s department of veterans affairs that is using AI to study and analyse retired army personnel medical records. In an environment where trust in the social media giant is faltering, it is likely that Facebook’s recent efforts will do little to bolster its image.

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