The notifications on Facebook come as unwelcome reminders of personal loss:
A recommendation to add a cousin’s dead son as a friend.
A video commemorating friendship with a sibling who died years ago.
A suggestion to wish a dead brother “Happy Birthday.”
While Facebook has emerged as a remarkable tool to preserve cherished memories of departed friends and family, it has also served up these and other troubling — and often unexpected — notifications.
On Tuesday, Facebook announced several changes aimed at easing users’ grief. The social media company is using artificial intelligence “to minimize experiences that might be painful,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a statement posted to the company’s website.
“We use AI to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events or sending a birthday reminder to their friends,” Sandberg said. “We’re working to get better and faster at this.”
The announcement came as Facebook has faced scrutiny over the spread of white nationalism on its platforms, not properly protecting its users’ data and allowing foreign meddling in elections.
Facebook’s push to better manage notifications about dead people may seem like a common-sense move. But it is not a trivial exercise for the company, which has for years grappled with so-called digital afterlife.
A number of users have reported that profiles of dead friends or family have been hacked or used to share spam. In 2014, the company apologized after a “Year in Review” post featured the face of a man’s dead daughter, The Washington Post reported at the time.
“The phenomena here is where life is transient, Facebook is not,” said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a California-based nonprofit.
After someone dies, a friend or family member can request that the person’s profile be deactivated or “memorialized” if that person had not already requested that the account be permanently deleted upon their death. A memorialized account turns the profile into a special account where people can post tributes or see posts from when that person was still alive.
There are hundreds of thousands of memorialized accounts, the company said. But accounts do not always get memorialized.
“We’ve heard from people that memorializing a profile can feel like a big step that not everyone is immediately ready to take,” Sandberg said in her post.
That means that many dead people have profiles that have not been flagged to Facebook. These accounts will prompt notifications on other people’s pages for birthday reminders or suggestions that they be invited to events.
Facebook has for years tried to automate ways to identify those profiles so they don’t send possibly painful notifications to users.
Sandberg did not specify how the new artificial intelligence technology announced Tuesday would do this better than the company’s previous efforts. Facebook would not provide further details other than to say in an emailed statement, “We look at a variety of signals that may indicate the person is deceased.”
Rutledge said the announcement was the latest in Facebook’s continuing evolution. The company introduced memorialized profiles in 2007. In 2015, the company added the concept of a “legacy contact” — the prearranged appointment of a friend or family member to run the memorialized account.
“This isn’t something where we should say, ‘Oh, bad Facebook because they didn’t think of this,’” she said. “I think they’re stumbling along like everyone else trying to learn how to live in this world.”
In Tuesday’s announcement, Sandberg also announced a new “tributes” section on memorialized profiles, giving friends and family a new place where they can post messages. The company is also giving legacy contacts more control of those profiles by moderating what is posted on the new tributes section, Sandberg said.
Rutledge said several months ago that Facebook reminded her to wish happy birthday to her father, who died more than two years ago at the age of 91. She said her family had not memorialized her father’s account — but not for any particular reason.
“If Facebook isn’t sort of one of your primary mechanisms for connecting with the world, it would be pretty easy to not think to do that,” Rutledge said.
Jocelyn DeGroot, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who has studied how people handle death on Facebook, said the reminders also did not bother everyone. Some like to be reminded of those who have died.
“Whatever triggers somebody might not trigger somebody else,” she said. “People like to be reminded of the deceased, but sort of on their own terms.”