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Facebook to Allow Users to Trigger 'Safety Check' Feature

Facebook Inc. said Monday that it is aiming for communities to be able to trigger its “safety check” function instead of the social media giant having sole control over it during a disaster.

Facebook Inc. FB 1.26 % said Monday that it is aiming for communities to be able to trigger its “safety check” function instead of the social media giant having sole control over it during a disaster, reinforcing its stance that it is merely a platform.

Facebook has faced criticism that it applies the “safety check”—which lets users in a designated area mark themselves as “safe” on their Facebook profiles—unevenly, favoring some countries over others. Facebook employees have used the tool after recent terrorist attacks in Europe and Pakistan, and last week following the earthquake in Italy.

The change shifts the sensitive decision of which incidents merit the safety check from Facebook’s responsibility. “The next thing we need to do is so communities can trigger safety check themselves when there is a disaster,” Mr. Zuckerberg said Monday during a town hall question-and-answer session during a visit to Italy. During his visit, Mr. Zuckerberg also met with Pope Francis and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

In June, Facebook began testing a feature that allows people to both initiate and share crises on Facebook. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company hopes it will empower people to signal whether or not safety check would be useful in their community in a crisis.

The move is part of an effort to distance Facebook from recent controversies about what appears on the social media site.

Last week, Facebook said it would rely on algorithms instead of humans for its “trending” feature, following allegations that human intervention led to political bias on the feed earlier this year.

In July, Facebook took down and then reinstated live video footage following a police shooting in Minnesota.

“We are a technology company, not a media company,” Mr. Zuckerberg said at the meeting, which was streamed live on his Facebook page Monday. “We build tools, we do not produce any of the content.”

Mr. Zuckerberg said he also envisions a safety check for suicide prevention, that would allow the community to intervene if someone posts they are thinking of killing themselves.

For the broad “safety check” feature, Facebook has faced questions for its decisions about which disasters are serious enough to warrant its use.

Last November, Facebook activated the feature following terrorist attacks in Paris, but not after suicide bombings in Beirut. A Facebook executive at the time acknowledged the criticism, and said Facebook would refine when it turns on the feature, which it introduced in October 2014.

Until the Paris attack, Facebook had only used “safety check” for natural disasters.

Write to Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com

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