Facebook Will Fight Veteran Suicide With An App

What social responsibility looks like for the world’s biggest social network.

Nick Ut / AP

Facebook is taking a new step in the direction of public social responsibility with a campaign to combat veteran suicides by making it easier for veterans to connect with each other and locate resources when they’re in need.

The goal is an old one — to combat suicide, depression, and alcoholism, and to smooth veterans’ transitions back into civilian life. And the tools are built into the social network, the people designing the new app say.

“Facebook can help because we understand the things that might tie you to other people in a community and can help find what’s best for you,” said Jake Brill, one of the Facebook employees working on the project.

The move is the latest in a gradual shift toward public engagement for the social giant. In 2007, Facebook launched its Causes.com platform to help grassroots groups organize, publicize their causes, and fundraise. It has helped register people as organ donors and has encouraged people to get out and vote with its “I voted” button. It continues to fight against cyberbullying, most recently with its reporting system that encourages victims to reach out to adults for help or talk to the bully directly.

And there’s no question of the need among returning veterans. According to a Department of Veterans Affairs report released today, approximately 18 to 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day. And nearly 19% of veterans who call the Veterans Crisis Line call more than once a month. The two-year study is the first comprehensive look at U.S. veteran suicide rates nationwide.

Currently there are thousands of Facebook pages for vet groups, but according to Brill, it can be hard to find the right information amongst the noise.

“There are so many organizations online, and you might happen on one serendipitously on Facebook,” says Brill. “The question is, how do you connect the dots and help people get to the right place?”

In collaboration with various experts who work closely with returning soldiers, Facebook is creating a curated list of vetted organizations and resources covering issues like mental health, job placement, and education opportunities for the Veterans App.

Facebook plans to include a specialized way for veterans to address posts and photos that indicate their fellow veterans are in immediate distress. They’re also given an option to send a message to a fellow veteran crafted by Facebook, suggesting specific resources for suicide, depression, alcoholism, or employment. Putting words in users’ mouths to help them talk to troubled friends might seem creepy, but it could also be life-saving. (Other Facebook experiments with crafting messages on behalf of users have been successful.)

There are already examples of veterans reaching out to each other on Facebook to help prevent suicides. One particularly startling example involved members from the Awesome Shit My Drill Sergeant Said group, where a soldier reached out for help when a fellow serviceman was attempting suicide. The group, while focused on humor, was able to mobilize veterans around the country who found the solider and saved his life.

“Since then we have taken that success, achieved by chance crowdsourcing, and have repeated it,” says Dan Cuddy, founder of the group, who served in Afghanistan. “We have saved 33 people and have engaged and connected with hundreds more.”

Since many veterans are hesitant to reach out for help, Facebook is using the Veterans App as an opportunity to test out some of their theories about how to encourage people to join groups. Working with social scientists, including psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo, psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, it is looking at ways to increase empathy and compassion between people online. It all sounds touchy feely and academic, but Facebook is convinced that it will work.

One current plan is to place information next to the Veterans App page about mutual friends and shared likes between the viewer and people in the group. The idea being that if you see people that like the same TV shows, music, books, movies, or celebrities, you are more likely to check it out and think about joining.

Just as with Facebook’s Graph search, the Veteran App’s success relies on getting more people to “like” stuff. When Mark Zuckerberg was asked at the Graph launch how Facebook was addressing the problem, he admitted it was a challenge. “People have been asking a long time to see who in their network like things,” Zuckerberg optimistically told the crowd.

If the Veterans App is successful, Facebook hopes to expand the model to offer services for other groups of people, such as those dealing with bullying or coping with disease.

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