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Poll says you're smarter than this guy

I wish I could say with conviction that no one takes Facebook polls seriously. Which friend is a better listener? Who is prettier, funnier and happier? But I can't pretend that I haven't had one of those slightly disheartening moments when I was notified that a ranking of mine, one that I hadn't even known existed, had dropped 19 spots.

When missing a FarmVille harvest is seen as a life and death situation, it does not entirely surprise me to hear poll results are stirring up some very large issues — bigger than drama between hall mates, suite mates or house mates.

It was just last Sunday that a shocking poll brought some negative attention to the social networking site. A poll making application had allowed a private user to pose the question to his friends: "Should [President Barack] Obama be killed?" Their options for response consisted of "yes," "no," "maybe" as well as "yes, if he cuts my health care," according to The Washington Post.

As soon as Facebook was alerted as to the nature of the poll, the site removed it and suspended the application that allowed its production in the first place. Yet the Secret Service may not be dismissing this matter so easily. Secret Service spokesman Darrin Blackford said, "We are aware of [the poll], and we will take the appropriate investigative steps. We take these things seriously."

This is not the first anti-Obama remark given national attention since the start of his administration. Officials from the Secret Service have also noted that the number of threats against Obama were greater than those against other candidates during the campaign. In February, a sign displaying the words "Abort Obama, not the unborn" was confiscated from the back of a car by an Oklahoma City police officer and reported to the Secret Service. According to Fox News, the Oklahoma City Police Department later admitted a mistake and said "the officer misinterpreted the sign" as a threat to kill the president.

The Facebook poll, like the sign, ultimately may not be deemed to have been an overt death threat, but that does not mean it was appropriate. Nonetheless, the right to free speech may in fact officially support the existence of a presidential assassination opinion poll. The Supreme Court has upheld that "a statute prohibiting threats against the life of the president could be applied only against speech that constitutes a ‘true threat' and not against mere ‘political hyperbole.'" Whether this poll falls within these parameters will certainly be determined by the investigation within the coming weeks.

Isn't there, however, a line between "political hyperbole" and potentially dangerous provocation? Not to make the assumption that the Facebook poll was anything more than a poorly constructed joke, but it certainly had the capacity to become something much more serious.

Such a question may have been posed as a call to attention, making a statement and taking a side in the health care debate; or it could, of course, have been posed as a call to action.

Who is to say that any one of those "yes" responses, taken as they were in the anonymous fashion of a poll, were not "true threats?" The thoughts, feelings and intentions behind those answers are indecipherable. The poll can exist as a platform on which to air one's grievances without the risk of exposure or the possibility of punishment.

An opinion through the means of a poll with no intonation, no elaboration, no clarification is highly difficult to interpret. In the same way that the poll cannot read one's earnestness, the mechanism does not allow room for sarcasm or mocking responses. On a private page on a site like Facebook, it is highly likely that mockery will indeed be a driving force behind individuals' responses, but it is nearly impossible to tell.

The dark side of the Internet is something we have seen time and again, from chat room stalkers to the more recent Craigslist killer. Facebook, which originated as a way to stay connected with everyone from your kindergarten classmates to your high school sweetheart to your aunts in Arizona, unfortunately seems to be walking the fine line between the good and evil of the Internet.

I doubt this stain on the face of Facebook will cause all the strawberries to wither, keep birthday wishes from being shared or stop users from making daily status updates. This poll will not ruin Facebook — but it could have.

Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. Her column, "Definition of Insanity," runs on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes feedback at larisk@eden.rutgers.edu.

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