My initial reaction when I saw that Facebook hosted a poll asking whether or not President Obama should be killed was blind fury. Why haven't they stopped this? Where are the voices of outrage from national political leaders who stir up a hue and cry whenever someone allows a kitten to fall from a tree?Then I tried to talk myself off the ledge. How quickly, after all, can we expect Facebook to spot this, let alone react? Maybe our political leaders have been asked to stay quiet so as not to fan the flames of hate and idiocy.
A Facebook spokeswoman sent me the following comment:
The third-party application that enabled an individual user to create the offensive poll was brought to our attention this morning. It was immediately suspended while the inappropriate content could be removed by the developer and until such time as the developer institutes better procedures to monitor their user-generated content.
But I'm back on the ledge. Online social networks, just like their offline counterparts, are vectors of emotional contagion.
Given the evidence that Facebook usage comes at the expense of TV watching, it's only natural to conclude that just as we are what we eat, as we elect the leaders we deserve, so we think what we network. It turns out that bees and human beings have a lot in common.
It's not that so many of us want to do the unmentionable. It's that we have to be exposed to it. If we participate in a social network, we're agreeing to expose ourselves to all kinds of thinking and feeling, whether that network is virtual or physical.
Harvard University sociologist Nicholas Christakis who, along with UC--San Diego social scientist James Fowler, authored a study on social networks, told the USAToday, "So many things we normally think of as individualistic -- like what our body size is, or what we think about a political topic, or whether we are happy -- are actually collective phenomena."
Whether they're face-to-face or virtual, social networks influence human behavior and shape everything from finances to the way people vote.
Apparently, happiness spreads more surely than sadness. But how about anger?
While we can't help it if we meet someone negative or downright hateful, we can make it a point to not associate with them in the future. And according to this study, we're not influenced by random strangers, but rather by people in or closely associated to our circle of friends.
Online, we can unfriend someone, but in many cases the network effect is more powerful online than off. The very nature of virtual networks facilitates serendipitous encounters -- and that's a good thing. But how do we sanction bad behavior?
In the physical world, we send signals through facial expressions and body language that give or withhold permission. How do we do that on a digital network? How do we combat intolerance? How do we communicate our displeasure before a nefarious act (or remark) spreads out of control?
There's no question the issue of policing our network is our responsibility, not Facebook's. But like any broadcaster, online networks also have a responsibility to guard against hate speech and inflammatory behavior.
Facebook could establish business rules flagging certain language for review and possible removal. The question then becomes, do we really want that? Who will decide what is objectionable?
One of the unquestioned benefits of online networks is that they provide a venue for social outcasts, people with minority points of view, people who live on the edge of 'normal' society, or who have unpopular opinions or sexual proclivities; eccentrics of all kinds. It would be a crime to crush that freedom.
Ironically, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles just blogged on Facebook about the role of technology in promoting tolerance, and his point of view is somewhat disheartening:
From the printing press to the telegraph, to radio and television and the Internet, innovation has always been a double-edged sword. Contrary to the technological Utopians, there is no such thing as an invention whose potential for good cannot be perverted for evil.
We're still at the very infancy of the digital revolution, so we should take care not to add rules we'll regret later. Yet my blood boils and I want to know how Facebook allowed something like that Obama poll to get posted, and why they didn't take it down immediately. How do we resolve this contradiction?