The day Facebook asked me: ‘are you in crisis?’

Facebook did a deal with the Samaritans in 2011 to offer help to people in distress

Ciara O’Brien checking her Facebook account. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Ciara O’Brien checking her Facebook account. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

When the email landed, I mistook it for spam, marketing or other inconsequential nonsense.

“Are you in crisis? A message from Facebook”, the subject line said. It claimed a friend was concerned about my wellbeing, prompting communication from the social network direct to the email address I provided when I signed up to Facebook several years ago.

A further email from the Samaritans would follow within 24 hours, it said.

Assuming it to be a mistake, I archived it and waited to see what would happen next. Sure enough, 24 hours later, a second email arrived, this time from the Samaritans, offering to lend an ear for whatever was troubling me.

“Facebook has been in touch with Samaritans, as one of your friends will have contacted Facebook to say they are concerned about how you might be feeling at the moment,” the email read.

“Facebook has provided us with your email address so that we can offer you some support at this time.”

The email was genuine; Facebook did a deal with the Samaritans in 2011 to offer help to people who were in distress. It has happened in the past that people have posted about plans for suicide and been ignored, leading to the tragedies such as that of UK charity worker Simone Back, who died after posting on Facebook that she had taken an overdose. It was a day before anyone alerted authorities about the threat. The idea behind the Samaritans deal was to reach out to people earlier in a bid to reduce the number of suicides. About 525 people died by suicide in Ireland in 2011, more than are killed on Irish roads and on a per 100,000 people basis, a far higher incidence than that of England. More men than women are affected, with a suicide rate approximately five times that of women.

Anything that can help reduce that rate is a welcome move, and there can be no doubt Facebook’s intentions are good. The social network is lambasted for so many things, it seems a bit wrong to criticise it for actually trying to help its users.

It seems that hardly a month goes by without a Facebook-focused debate, usually on privacy, and the social network is often the subject of viral posts by its own users regarding what they are doing with all that precious information entrusted to it. These posts are often incorrect.

However, well-intentioned or not, it still has to abide by data protection guidelines, and that includes passing on private email addresses.

A query to the Data Protection Commissioner ( DPC) has prompted some discussions between Facebook and the watchdog in recent months. The commissioner said it was confident Facebook was trying to act in the best interests of its users; however, its approach needed to be worked on.

Facebook will also pass on contact details to State emergency services if there is an immediate threat to the personal safety of its users. However, the Samaritans, while a worthy organisation that provides a lifeline to people, is still an external entity, requiring users to give their permission before contact details can be passed on.

The Samaritans is not passing in any contact details; any information sent to them remains confidential unless they are required to do so by law. The Facebook referrals are part of this. Part of the issue seems to be that the deal with the Samaritans was done with the UK operation, where privacy laws differ slightly.

At the last contact, the DPC said Facebook was reviewing and altering its processes. “We understand that Facebook is currently finalising a new approach to its referral process,” it said. “Facebook-Ireland has undertaken to consult this office in relation to its proposals, which we expect to receive in the next few weeks.”

To this day, I have no idea what triggered the report to Facebook; I can only assume it was someone trying to be funny. Reporting suicidal content on Facebook isn’t something you can do by accident. You have to seek out the report page, and then provide a link to the content that parked your concern, or provide screenshots. The reports are reviewed by a team before being passed on to the Samaritans, to weed out hoaxes.

There is no doubt there needs to be some form of accountability on social networks, regardless of whether it is Facebook, Twitter or whatever the next big thing will be. However, the privacy of users must also be respected.

Samaritans.org

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