Facebook users posting about the deadly earthquake that struck Indonesia Sunday were surprised to find that some comments triggered an animation of balloons and confetti:
The 2.0-magnitude earthquake struck the resort island of Lombok, east of Bali, on Sunday, killing at least 98 people and injuring hundreds more. Many Indonesian-speaking users posted concern for those affected in response to the tragedy, using the word “selamat.”
Selamat in Indonesian can be translated as both “safe” or “unhurt,” as well as “congratulations,” depending on the context. Because of this, Facebook’s algorithm misinterpreted comments expressing concern for the safety of people in Indonesia as messages of congratulations, triggering a festive animations of balloons and confetti to play whenever someone commented using the word.
“This feature (a text animation triggered by typing ‘congrats’) is widely available on Facebook globally, however we regret that it appeared in this unfortunate context and have since turned off the feature locally,” Lisa Stratton, a Facebook spokesperson, told Motherboard in an email. “Our hearts go out to the people affected by the earthquake.”
Herman Saksono, a computer science PhD student at Northeastern University who is Indonesian, noticed the effect over the weekend. As someone who studies human-computer interaction, Saksono told me he was surprised that Facebook’s hadn’t taken into account the fact that “selamat” has two meanings.
“People use the word interchangeably, it’s the same word but for different meanings,” Saksono told me over the phone. “Researchers spend a lot of time before launching a function like this to make sure it truly fits the culture and practices in languages in which it will be used. I would expect Facebook to do the same, given all the resources they have. I guess this missed this one.”
Listen to our podcast about the world’s greatest mysteries that were solved by science.