In the realm of communication, especially in interactive media, we’re often confronted with opportunities to consider morality and ethics in the context of how to respond, or even “show up” online. In the case of social media, our affiliations are often public, and our choices to stand behind certain positions tend to be made in an instant. A recent example of a crowd-sourced statement is a rather flippant prayer suggesting the death of President Obama on Facebook that reads:
“Dear Lord, this year you took my favorite actor, Patrick Swayzie (sic). You took my favorite actress, Farah (sic) Fawcett. You took my favorite singer, Michael Jackson. I just wanted to let you know, my favorite president is Barack Obama. Amen.”
Sadly, this mantra has garnered close to 1.2 million “likes” since the time of it’s posting on April 10th. When CNN asked if they will remove the highly offensive fan page, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said, “while it may be considered distasteful and objectionable to some, the page doesn’t violate the company’s content policies.” He went on to say that Facebook is “sensitive to content that includes pornography, bullying, hate speech, and actionable threats of violence, and we react quickly to remove content that violates our policies when it is reported to us” (CNN, 2010).
Is Facebook wrong to refuse to pull this page?
If we are to look at this situation purely from an ethical standpoint, one could argue that it would be unethical to remove the page. To do so would create a precedence for censorship on a website that is considered to be self-regulating and a representation of public opinion. If they were to take down a page that exhibits distain for one politician, certainly they would have to do so for all, then Facebook would become censored media rather than social media.
But if we look at this from a standpoint of collective morals, values and beliefs, we can argue quite differently. To oppose or even disparage a politician on a website is one thing, but to gently suggest a prayer for one’s death, would be considered immoral by our cultural standards. As a democratic nation, we value freedom of speech, yet most of us believe words that promote hate (or death in this case), should not be given a platform, or at least fall on deaf ears.
So here we have a situation that hinders on ethics, morals, beliefs and values. What’s the best course of action in this situation? I believe that since American political and cultural ideals have become so polarized in the last 20 years, it would seem reasonable to take values and beliefs off the table. Morality and ethics can often stand alone as a reasonable measurement of appropriate action.
In the case of the “Obama Prayer” Facebook page, we have already determined that ethics would suggest it should not be censored, however morals might lead us toward a different conclusion. Wikipedia defines morality as “personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores that distinguish between right and wrong in the human society”. Within our own American society, with the exception of a small fringe group of individuals, it’s fair to say that most people within this country would not hope for the death of the President, even though they may oppose his position in office. Even the creator of the page himself suggested “We are not really praying for the death of Obama. It is just some humor to show our disapproval of our current president” (CNN, 2010).
As author Daniel Solove points out in his book The Future Of Reputation, “[c]rowds can be impulsive and excitable”. He describes the term “group polarization effect” as masses of people who crowd behind a particular issue. As he suggests, “they tend to polarize in their opinions, resulting in more extreme points of view” (2007, p. 101). With this said, given that we can understand how the 1.2 million supporters of this page may not actually wish death upon the President, but rather they feel compelled to communicate their political position in a highly reactive way, it would seem morally reasonable to remove the page, as it reaches beyond the boundaries of appropriate expression of honest opinion, and suggests an immoral statement that is counter to our cultural norms.
What do you think?
Does Facebook user pray for Obama’s death? – CNN.com. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 5, 2010, from
Facebook | DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 5, 2010
Morality – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 5, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality
Solove, D., (2007) The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy On The Internet. Caravan Books.