Thursday, April 29, 2010

Praying for death on Facebook

We all know up-close the phenomenon that is Facebook.  Incorporated in 2004, not even a year after Mark Zuckerman created "Facemash" in his Harvard dorm room in the fall semester of 2003, the site now boasts over 400 million users worldwide.  That's quite a change from a newborn website that initially allowed only Harvard College students...then Stanford, Columbia, and Yale...then the entire Ivy League...then all Boston-area schools...and well, you know the rest.  Begun as a social networking tool for college students, many of us are now "friends" with our parents and our parents are now friends with their grandchildren.  What a six years it's been!

It has now become a de facto online town square.  And, given that anyone over 13 in possession of an e-mail address can take part, it was just a matter of time for the content to cover the spectrum from ridiculous to the sublime to the downright offensive.  Users, too, who all have different ideas of what is ridiculous, sublime or downright offensive.  Naturally, politics abounds with groups or pages devoted to this or against that.  This is to be expected.  What is not necessarily to be expected is a group praying for someone's death -- especially the U.S. President's death.  Over 1,000,000 Facebook users now "like" this group.


Alright, perhaps given the unhinged times we live in, this was to be expected.  Apparently, the group evolved from an online poll on Facebook last Fall asking if users thought President Obama should be killed -- something even more staggeringly offensive than prayers for someone's death (though certainly this is splitting hairs).  Sigh.  Ok, what is definitely not expected, then, is that Facebook wouldn't be doing a thing about it.  Despite the fact that Facebook's terms of use bans posting "content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence", the response has been hands-off.  Others have criticized Facebook for allowing Holocaust denial groups, citing their presence as hate-speech.  So, what gives?

The bottom line, however, is that Facebook is not a town square -- at least not in the governmental sense -- and therefore is under no obligation to protect 1st Amendment free speech.  That said, the government is moving ever steadily in the direction of removing hate-speech from protected speech, so why wouldn't Facebook, given a) it has no obligation to protect hate-speech and b) such speech clearly violates its own stated terms of use?

Or, how about this food for thought?  Setting aside the debate between what, if anything, should be banned, let's briefly examine potential liability.  What if, God forbid, someone actually assassinates the current or a future President (or anyone else, for that matter), and later in court cites as partial motivation a group he belonged to on Facebook calling or praying for someone's death?  How would Facebook respond?  What would be their liability?  Legality notwithstanding, what would be their moral responsibility?

Perhaps the reigning king of social networking sites should shelve how best to use their members' information to direct traffic and sell ads and pay a bit more attention to what and whom they are actually hosting.