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Killing-Obama poll raises online questions

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UPDATED:

A Facebook poll asking whether President Obama should be assassinated has sparked an Internet uproar - with new polls calling for the offending poll creator's arrest and other social-networking sites questioning their policies amid an unprecedented level of online vitriol.

"It's like free speech on steroids," said Jesse Farmer, the Palo Alto, Calif., Web developer whose technology was used to inquire whether Mr. Obama should be killed in a Facebook poll, which is being investigated by the U.S. Secret Service.

Mr. Farmer told The Washington Times in an interview that the incident has sparked a debate about how the Internet's gatekeepers can handle a flood of Internet activity without infringing on constitutional rights.

On Monday, the Political Carnival blog broke the news using a screen grab of the "Should Obama be killed" poll, created by someone using Mr. Farmer's third-party Facebook application.

The poll listed four options: Yes. Maybe. No. If he cuts my health care.

Mr. Farmer said the answer was overwhelmingly "No," with 98 percent of the 731 people choosing that option before the poll was disabled.

The news caused a firestorm, as it came after a summer of angry protests that included signs featuring Mr. Obama as Adolf Hitler and after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she feared the political discourse had become so degraded it could lead to violence.

Even those who denounced the poll were worried that its reach was overblown.

Ken, who blogs at PopeHat, said such Internet posts are "worthy of contempt" but are "not true threats." He said it's troublesome some are attempting to censor free speech.

Mr. Farmer's daily routine includes checking for offensive material among the sometimes 10,000 polls created daily using his application.

After looking at what's been flagged as offensive by some of the 300 million people on Facebook, Mr. Farmer uses his own judgment call to yank polls. He said many polls have either rude or crude language, and he disables those that target nonpublic figures.

The Secret Service did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Facebook users took it into their own hands to create polls denouncing the original post and asking how Facebook should be punished - with a fine, by issuing an apology or instituting better safeguards.

Scott Rubin, a spokesman for YouTube, said the site takes any posts "inciting others to commit violent acts ... very seriously," with a permanent ban being a potential consequence. YouTube will hand over to authorities any content that may violate the site's guidelines.

The site also has a safety tool allowing users to flag "threatening comments" and round-the-clock staffers monitor and sometimes report those submissions to authorities.

Users can vote comments up or down and block offensive or objectionable language.

The White House has an open comments policy on its YouTube page, where user cherrybombz454 complained about Mr. Obama's policy toward Iran.

"Worst President Ever!" the user wrote.

Plenty of other Facebook polls are judging Mr. Obama, asking whether he's a "socialist," and more than 34,000 have voted in a poll asking whether Mr. Obama is "destroying our country." But most users said the assassination poll crossed the line.

"You do not make jokes about killing leaders you disagree with," Keith John Sampson of Indianapolis scolded Facebook users.

He said when he attended a protest of President George W. Bush in May 2003, he reported to Secret Service a threat another protester made against the president.

"I could not take the chance that the fool at the demonstration might not decide to take action on his own," he said. "No one detested President Bush more than me ... [b]ut I never wished him harm."

Mr. Farmer turned over to the Secret Service the poll creator's numerical identifier but still the internet was flooded with comments from critics who thought he was responsible for its content. He said he was relieved that the tech-savvy authorities understood that wasn't the case.

Mr. Farmer admitted he failed by not noticing the out-of-bounds poll until it had already become a news story.

"Now it's back to the drawing board and making it better," he said.