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Defending Our Ethos On Facebook

Yesterday I posted my <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2009/09/facebook_promot.html;jsessionid=V5XKZPUCL54WZQE1GHRSKHWATMY32JVN">outrage about a poll that appeared on Facebook</a> asking if President Obama should be killed. Yesterday, I wondered how we should balance our needs for civility against the equally pressing need for everyone to have access to this kind of vehicle for expression and connection.

Michael Hickins

September 29, 2009

5 Min Read

Yesterday I posted my outrage about a poll that appeared on Facebook asking if President Obama should be killed. Yesterday, I wondered how we should balance our needs for civility against the equally pressing need for everyone to have access to this kind of vehicle for expression and connection.Then I received an email in response, which from its tone, defiant and yet defensive, appears to be from the author of the poll. And today I wonder about the wisdom of my equanimity, and the extent to which we can tolerate incitement to violence in a free and peaceful society, online or otherwise.

(Please note that Facebook issued a statement saying that the application used to create the poll was suspended as soon as the poll was brought to its attention. A spokeswoman also told me that Facebook is cooperating with the Secret Service.)

Here's the email:

Hi Michael,

I just wanted to maybe hopefully open your mind a little bit in a sense at least.

I want you to really think hard about a couple of comments you made:

"online networks also have a responsibility to guard against hate speech and inflammatory behavior."

"I want to know how Facebook allowed something like that Obama poll to get posted, and why they didn't take it down immediately."

When you think about what you said there, think about the first amendment. Think about the expression of what someone is saying there. To me, the real question becomes why did someone post that poll? What inspired them to post such a poll? Also another question might be, what were the results of the said poll? How do the people on this social networking site really feel about the options that were presented to them in this poll?

We are so quick to be "intolerant" ourselves on things that other people say or the way that they say them. The secret service is looking into someone who was merely expressing an opinion and looking for others views and nothing more. In all honesty, if I were the secret service, I'd be more concerned with all of those who possibly voted "yes" in the poll than the individual who posted it.

The fact of the matter is, it might be a touchy subject, but in all reality it's a fair subject for discussion like anything else. It's no different than deciding if illegals should be granted citizenship rights, and it's no different in deciding if a prisoner should be on death row.

The real truth is in a situation like this as well, is if a large group of people really feel this president is out of control, really feel this government is out of control, and truly feels that better needs to be done, then isn't it their duty to act upon that as stated in the Declaration of Independence?

Now, most people don't honestly believe we're to that point yet, but as more freedom and more liberties seem to disappear as the founders of this country warned they would, then isn't it one's civic duty to ask his or her peers what the right action would be, even if the said action would involve terminating a current holder of public office?

Just some food for thought. Sometimes you have to think outside the box.

-- Paul [Last name redacted]

I wanted to leave you the full, unedited effect of this email, so I resisted the temptation of adding remarks next to each paragraph. But it would be a mistake to allow those ignorant and hateful words to pass without comment.

The first amendment prohibits government from limiting speech, not private individuals or groups; "merely expressing an opinion and looking for others views and nothing more -- Typical stuff from a schoolyard bully; "a fair subject for discussion like anything else"!!?? Are you out of your freaking mind? No, it's not your civic duty to ask your peers if the right course of action is to 'terminate' a current holder of public office; That isn't outside the box. It's outside the bounds of civil discourse.

The proper response when you don't like what's happening in Washington is to put forward competing ideas and candidates and attempt to win the next set of elections. The proper response is to use social networks and other communication technology to get your message across. The proper response is not to resort to violence, or to incite violence. There is no justification for it, no matter how sincerely you believe there's an out-of-control president or government.

This brings me back to the issue of how social networks should regulate themselves (and how we, as consumers of those sites, should demand they regulate themselves.) What's a reasonable demand? From what Facebook said in its statement, someone had to bring that poll to its attention.

Tools using semantic association and other sentiment analysis could spot this kind of content, and allow Facebook to remove offensive content proactively, without having to be alerted.

The question remains, though: should we expect Facebook to use those tools? And are we clear about what we consider out of bounds?

This poll clearly was, but other forms of communication may be less clear-cut. It will ultimately be up to the users of the networks to police them and determine what is beyond the bounds for that particular site. Comments on yesterday's post are on the side of the poll-taker and against any kind of censorship, regardless of whether it comes from users or elsewhere.

My historian friend George Axiotakas wrote, "the project of the enlightenment is to educate ever-larger groups of people to be informed and rational. Technology will contribute to this, but it is no panacea."

And since it's no panacea, we will have to remain as vigilant in defense of our ethos, based on civility and the non-violent resolution of conflict, in virtual worlds as we are in the physical one.

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