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Facebooks’ Suicide prevention algorithm – some thoughts

Media published reports a few days ago about Facebook wanting to monitor messages and using Artificial Intelligence to identify users at risk of suicide.

Immediately, I wanted to write about it. But I didn’t. Because, quite frankly… I don’t know what to think about this.

For those of you who haven’t read it yet (one or two, I guess) what it comes down to is that Facebook is going to do what it does best: analyze Big Data. Using some algorithms developed by their own developers, the system “Flags” posts which appear to be suicidal. Next, human specialists check the timeline, who then decide wether action is needed.

How the Facebook suicide detection system works

Suicide help isn’t a new thing for Facebook. For years, they’ve been offering assistance. So far, however, Facebook acts on reports from users. Using the data collected over the years, they have come up with some pattern recognition. the BBC describes it like this:

Talk of sadness and pain, for example, would be one signal. Responses from friends with phrases such as “Are you OK?” or “I’m worried about you,” would be another.

Facebook then sends a message to the flagged user, with the advice to seek help.


Facebook will approach users they believe are thinking of suicide with the advice on how to get help. (Photo: Facebook)

Facebook does not inform friends of the flagged user, as this might not be appropriate: “The question is how we can do that in a way that doesn’t feel invasive.”, says Vanessa Callison-Burch who is in charge of this project.

So many sides to the story

On the one hand, it is obviously a good thing to detect suicidal intentions early on, preferably at a point where it isn’t too late to help.

On the other hand, this news freaks me out about the privacy thing. I mean, seriously? If I post something like “God, I hate my life”, immediately someone is going to browse my entire records? Yes, we all know privacy has been dead ever since you sign up on Facebook, but this is a very strong reminde.

I fully trust that the intentions of Zuckerberg and his minions are totally honorable in this case, but if they can do this…what else can they do?

Suicidals going underground?

Another thing that I am deeply worried about is the effect this news may have on those being monitored. Quite often, posts about killing themselves are a mere cry for attention or help, wanting people to notice and care. In a world where human contact is more and more replaced by screen-based contacts, people are feeling disconnected. Maybe, the posts are a desperate attempt to use the very tool of disconnection to restore some connection. A real connection. A loving, human connection.

But if you are aware that your post will bring on a response team, automatically sending the shrinks to your doorstep…. are you going to post?

Or are you going to be feeling even more alone and deserted? Is this going to be the final nudge to a number of people who might have been saved the other way?

I don’t know

I’ve been going left and right on this issue the last couple of days. And frankly, I just can’t reach a conclusion. Is this automated Big-Data approach something we can only cheer for? Or may it have some unintended side-effects? I’m racking my brain, but can’t figure it out. What do you think?


  • March 6, 2017 - 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Ik vraag mij af of het wel helpt. Op zich een goed initiatief maar geen idee wat het bereik en het effect daarvan is.

  • March 6, 2017 - 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Wow, algorithm suicide. I have not heard about it but it sounds really strange and I do not know what to think.

  • March 7, 2017 - 11:37 am | Permalink

    I really don’t like the new algorithm of Facebook and instagram. Wish it was still the old fashioned way.

  • March 8, 2017 - 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Idk, it’s intrusion yea, but I guess I’m okay with it if it helps saving someones life!

  • March 16, 2017 - 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I’m not quite sure what to think. But well, if it help or saves someone I guess it’s a good thing.

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