The Obama Assassination Poll — Another Story About Offensive, User-Generated Content

polls-facebookAs most web publishers and developers know, there is a terrible underbelly to online content. When you give people a way to publish their own blogs, photos, videos — or in the case today, a poll — some of them will publish disturbing things.

This past Sunday, a Facebook user created a poll using a third-party application called Polls, to pose the question “should [President] Obama be killed?” It has turned out to be national news.

Obviously this poll should have been taken down, as it is illegal and ethically wrong to advocate the death of somebody else, especially the President. And, in fact, the developer of the Polls application, Jesse Farmer, even worked on Obama’s campaign — so he certainly feels that way.

But Farmer wasn’t online when a blogger named GottaLaff saw the poll and wrote a scathing blog post about it. The story quickly spread among political blogs, then got picked up by the mainstream political reporters who read these blogs. By the time Farmer was awake the next morning, the swelling press coverage had triggered his automated system for catching offensive content — but by that time, Facebook had already been contacted by the president’s Secret Service security detail. In fact, Facebook had apparently removed the poll before it was contacted by the Secret Service today. The official comment from Facebook’s Barry Schnitt, via TPM:

The application that enabled a user to create the offensive poll was brought to our attention this morning and was disabled. We’re following up [with] the developer to ensure the offending content has been removed and that they have better procedures in place going forward to monitor their user-generated content.

How does one police offensive content?

The real question here is how user-generated content should be regulated online; its a question that has been an issue since the web made it easy for anyone to say anything. Should Farmer be responsible for somehow blocking anyone who tries to create a poll about anything offensive? Should anyone else also be responsible for pre-screening all user-generated content?

The other alternative is to try to get rid of clearly offensive or illegal content as soon as it shows itself. Farmer’s application sees thousands of polls created every hour — it has some 3.46 million monthly active users as of today. Facebook already includes a feature where users can contact an application creator to report offensive content from other users. Farmer receives millions of these requests — usually for things like hate groups that are also wrong but don’t involve the Secret Service. His application, as with many other web applications of this sort, detects a certain threshold of users and complaints, at which point he receives a special message, investigates, and deletes the offending poll.

The problem, in this case, is that the poll was discovered before it was even popular enough to register. In fact, the reason it registered with his system was due to the waves of press coverage it received last night and today. Farmer tells me that he’s working to detect this problem earlier — he’ll have to before Facebook lets the Polls app go live again.

Most web services rely on both software and teams of support staff to find and remove offensive content as soon as possible. But that’s very difficult when you’re a small operation like Farmer, trying to watch over millions of users. The conclusion, perhaps, is that if you’re a successful, small developer, beware of policing user-generated content. And, despite your best efforts, you might find yourself in the middle of the news cycle.

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9 Responses to “The Obama Assassination Poll — Another Story About Offensive, User-Generated Content”

  1. Jesse Farmer says:

    One small correction: I wasn’t asleep when the poll was created, although it was created Sunday evening.

    I wasn’t at the computer from about 6PM onward, though, which is approximately when the poll was created.

  2. Eric Eldon says:

    Okay, I must have misheard the sequence of events when we talked about it… updated the story.

  3. Jesse Farmer says:

    I mixed up EST and PST on the phone, so everything happened 3 hours earlier. Apologies.

  4. Karen says:

    This is interesting – just last week – I had a FB ad show up on a FB page I was browsing that was selling bumper stickers saying “ObamaBinLyin” – when it was clicked it went to a site that started out saying the President is a “Liar” and went downhill from there. I think I got this ad because I am listed as a Republican in my profile – but I am a Republican FOR Obama – so they showed this ad to the WRONG person. I reported it to FB and they apologized and made it sound like the problem was my interpretation of the ad – but I am pretty sure they took it down. I have advertised with FB many times and it is not easy to get them to approve an ad – there can be NO doubt about the veracity of what you are claiming in your ad – unless their policy has changed.

  5. Umstrittene Facebook-Umfrage zu Obamas Tod - MediaCluster News-Blog says:

    [...] Soll Präsident Obama umgebracht werden? [...]

  6. Patrick Nouhailler says:

    How user-generated content should be regulated online ? .
    If we look at the Facebook Statistics more than 2 billion pieces of content are shared each week. So it’s … a lot. Yes user-generated content should be regulated online on specific occasion like this. As you mention Facebook already includes features where users can report offensive content. It’s just going to take sometime to create the right tools to do that automatically. Now what kind of content should be regulated ? base on what ?

    Should Farmer be responsible for somehow blocking anyone who tries to create a poll about anything offensive?
    It’s his application so he should be able to decide who can use it and who cannot , no ?

    Should anyone else also be responsible for pre-screening all user-generated content?
    For now responsibility belong to all of us. If we feel the need for a public service we can always vote and appoint a group, a company to pre-screen all user-generated content for specific platform. We can create “friendly user-generated content” certificate for any given platform… It look like Brave New World to me but as long as we feel free to think whatever we want why bother?

    “despite your best efforts, you might find yourself in the middle of the news cycle.” People watching and commenting the news don’t take too many risk, being a small developer it’s a risky business nowadays, especially if the secret service is interested about you. The good news is: everybody is going to be a small developer soon, at least there is already 1 millions on Facebook!

  7. Sagar Jethani says:

    Fascinating piece! I used to manage content review at MySpace, and the question of application content proved to be a challenging one.

    On the one hand, you have wildly popular apps whose developers feel that it is not their responsibility to screen the user content. After all, in many cases, the developer is a single person working in his basement, and has no ability to adequately review user content.

    On the other hand, once an app goes viral, there tends to be a small fraction of users dedicated to putting inappropriate content into it. This probably stems from the belief that doing so will be more difficult to catch than content uploaded via native applications.

    I like Patrick’s comment above. In the end, it is the community’s responsibility to regulate itself. It’s not a perfect mechanism, and you might still make the news owing to the lag-times involved. Also, your community might genuinely be split as to how to deal with questionable content. (Look at the Facebook Holocaust-denial groups, for example.) But it’s the best way I can think of to effectively regulate app-based content, given the massive scale involved.

    It sounds like Jesse and Facebook did everything right here.

  8. Facebook Polls - The Ugly Side of Public Polls | CloudAve says:

    [...] Common sense obviously took a holiday here, and this just opens the door to all sorts of conversations about social networking. Beyond the obvious point of “why did someone do something so stupid” when everything seems to [...]

  9. amjust sayin says:

    i don’t know about regulating…
    there has to be more responsible people than sick ones, out there, right? it is our responsibility to report this kind of stuff. i do not agree with obama in many many things but this should not be tolerated ever…

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