All the Internet does is reflect -- and amplify -- human behavior.
It's easy to be anonymous online, as anyone who's ever been a victim of online slander knows. It's also easy to threaten the life of the sitting American president. And the controversial Facebook poll asking users if President Obama should be killed underlines two emerging ethos of the connected, free-wheeling, open-like-an-open-wound Web.
First, people do what they do online because they can. A Facebook spokesman said "the offensive poll" was put up on Saturday, drawing some 700 responses ranging from "yes" and "if he cuts my health care" to "no." The poll was created by a third-party application, and Facebookers had previously used the poll to ask questions like "What should I wear on Friday?" and "What do you think about health care?", the Facebook spokesman said. Both the individual poll and the application were taken down when Facebook officials were alerted of them Monday morning. The Secret Service is now investigating the case.
Second, because of the relative newness of our social networking era -- in which what you fire off on Twitter may end up on someone's Facebook status page before finding its way to some blog and then becoming the subject of a YouTube video -- there's no agreed upon code of behavior online. There's no censoring hub, no stop light to stop the madmen on the virtual freeway from veering off the lanes. What's acceptable to say in the company of your friends or relatives can go public. And spreads. Then hits a collective nerve.
Some HuffPostTech readers are asking others to boycott Facebook for allowing such a poll to possibly exist on its site. A HuffPost reader named "nevergiveup" posted a phone number for Facebook and urged people to call and "leave a message that this is unAmerican and treasonous and they are responsible."
In an interview with HuffPostTech, Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said: "People are certainly entitled to their opinions, but we argue that we acted responsibly. We took it down as soon as we found out."
A quick search on Facebook found that Obama is not the only political target on the popular social networking site, which now has 300 million users. Type "Sarah Palin" and "kill" on Facebook, for example, and an anti-Palin group called "Sarah Palin will Kill us All" pops up. It has 55 members. But Obama, by far, has been the subject of the most persistent and continuous attacks and rumors. During the presidential campaign, a widely debunked rumor that Obama is a Muslim was pervasive. In recent months, Obama's place of birth has been questioned by the so-called "birthers."
And here's the third emerging ethos of our social networking era: Online, clinging to their own set of facts, connecting within their own networks, people believe what they want to believe -- one click at a time.
"Society has always had extremists. They just haven't had a public venue that we could all see before," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on presidential communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Language is evolving because of the Internet, and people have no sense of what's appropriate or not. But you would expect that anyone who would ask people if the American president should be killed is fully aware of how extraordinarily serious that is. You would expect."