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Facebook's online poll crosses a line

The social networking site reacted properly to an Obama assassination entry, but questions about responsibility remain.

September 30, 2009

Not content with more conventional ways of expressing disapproval, an unidentified Facebook user recently posted a poll asking whether President Obama should be assassinated. The poll was outrageous, and Facebook forced its removal even before the Secret Service called. The larger questions raised by the incident, however, are how much control companies should exert over the use of the megaphones they provide online, and how much information social networks expose about the people who use them.

The inflammatory poll, created over the weekend with an application available to any Facebook user, offered four possible answers to the question "Should Obama be killed?": yes, maybe, "if he cuts my healthcare" and no. Originally published on the application developer's Facebook page, it spread as voters notified their networks of friends about it. Users also could complain about the poll through links provided by Facebook and the developer, a start-up called Advanced Alien Technology. A Facebook spokesman said the company received the first objection early Monday, and the poll came down shortly thereafter.

The poll is especially disturbing in light of the sharp increase in reported threats to the president's life. A new book estimates that Obama receives 30 a day, a 400% increase over President George W. Bush. Heated rhetoric is a staple of political discourse, but death threats -- whether real or insinuated -- are not. Yet it's not Facebook's responsibility to police the daily utterances of its more than 340 million users -- such prior restraint is anathema to free speech, and it would impose an impossible burden on any popular site. Instead, given the size of its audience, it's appropriate for Facebook to give users the tools to police themselves. It's also incumbent on the company to make sure application developers do the same, and Facebook appears to have done that.

At the same time, however, Facebook gives developers the ability to collect a stunning amount of information about the people who use their applications. Unless they're savvy enough to change their privacy settings, users not only automatically reveal the personal data they've entered into their Facebook profiles, they also disclose similar information from their friends' profiles. Those disclosures and connections could prove a gold mine to investigators, exposing people to scrutiny simply because a friend gave the wrong answer on the wrong Facebook poll. Before that happens, Facebook should do a better job of teaching users how to guard their privacy against the risks posed even by seemingly innocuous applications.

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