Facebook adds confetti and balloons to posts about Lombok earthquake

Posted on August 13, 2018


In a classic example of the social media site trying to be too clever and not giving due consideration to context, a Facebook algorithm meant that several posts about the recent earthquake in Lombok, Indonesia became adorned with celebratory images.

August 5th’s 6.9 magnitude quake is now known to have resulted in over 130 deaths, hundreds of injuries and tens of thousands of people left without homes, so it’s not a surprise that #Lombok has been trending on Twitter and that the disaster has been a topic of discussion on Facebook.

Unfortunately though, an ambiguity in the Indonesian language meant that Facebook’s algorithms mistakenly detected cause for celebration in many of the earthquake-related posts, and inappropriately added balloons and confetti to posts about the deadliest earthquake of 2018 so far.

How did this happen?

The confusion comes from the Indonesian word ‘selamat’, which means ‘unhurt’ or ‘unharmed’. Once news of the earthquake broke, Indonesians were keen to share their sympathies and hopes that people were safe.

However, as Google Translate shows us, ‘selamat’ can have a variety of alternative meanings, including ‘happy’, ‘good luck’ and ‘congratulations’. This prompted the highly inappropriate graphics to appear on certain people’s posts.

Herman Saksono, an Indonesian PhD student living in the US, explained the misunderstanding in a tweet:

How has Facebook reacted?

In an email to Motherboard, a spokesperson from Facebook admitted that the site regrets the appearance of the animation in these instances, describing it as an ‘unfortunate context’.

Facebook has also confirmed that although this feature, triggered by uses of words like ‘congrats’, is still available globally, it has been turned off in Indonesia to avoid further poorly placed festive graphics.

What can be learned?

This is the sort of issue that can be caused when algorithms are asked to detect the meaning of a post rather than humans. They often do it in a very crude way that simply involves recognising a word, but giving no consideration to its context.

Facebook needs to ask itself whether the two seconds of ‘wow’ factor generated from its algorithms correctly detecting cause for celebration, and responding with balloons and confetti, outweighs the bad publicity and hurt feelings caused by completely misjudging the tone of the message.

It seems to me that unless these algorithm features can in some way be overseen by humans, or become an optional feature among users, they are really more trouble than they’re worth.

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.
John Murray
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