Posted by: Chris | November 10, 2010

Sarah Palin, Facebook Stasi

Or so says Andrew Sullivan, in a fit of hyperbole more befitting a different, now unemployed, Andrew S. 

Despite its transparent ridiculousness, the accusation does pose an interesting question of emerging Internet ethics.  Obviously, pruning one’s Facebook wall is generally not regarded as censorship, even if it is to artificially inflate one’s image.  They are a personal space on the web and indeed it is often encouraged for one to remove unflattering elements from their wall.  But, we also, in other circumstances, hold public figures to a different standard of disclosure than we do private citizens.  So what routine Facebook doings should be considered impermissible for public figures?  Can Sarah Palin detag herself from an unfortunate picture?  Or how about an unfortunate newspaper article?  Can she scrutinize who joins her page as fans, just as we scrutinize who has access to our pages?  All of these things, along with deleting contradictory comments, can be used to create a skewed and inaccurate public image, but are also eminently permissible for private citizens.

In my mind, administrators of public pages, like Palin’s, should be held to the same standards as the stewards of private pages.  These places are not some sort of neutral public commons,  where all views and all commenters are welcome.  It is still an avatar for these people on the internet, more akin to a fan or a campaign site than a Wiki page.  As such, they seem more than in their rights to present an unrealistically flattering image to the audience, so long as it comes with the unspoken disclaimer (as do all Facebook pages) that this representation is intentionally cultivated for this purpose.  Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and other social media outlets will never be very honest about those that maintain them.

However, I can also see someone pointing to other, longer-lived elements on the Web, where a set of informal ethics has become fairly concrete, to help inform these discussions.  For example, a forum moderator who expurgates all posts from one vantage point with or a blogger who deletes contradictory comments would be rightly castigated as violating some sort of Internet norm.  Why would that same standard not apply to the administrator of Sarah Palin’s Facebook wall?  In my mind, the biggest reason is that the two are disanalogous.  Blogs and forums are explicitly places for discussion, a goal that is undermined by administrators with an overused delete button.  Though its format bears some similarities to blogs/forums, I do not think Facebook pages are oriented towards the same goal of open discussion, and thus are not diminished by excising contrary views.  Indeed, insofar as Facebook pages are oriented towards promotion of a person or idea, one would think vigilant pruning of the comments threads would be expected.  Even if we assume a parallel between Facebook and other areas of web commenting, we do also permit administrators to remove trolling and accusatory comments from their sites, a category into which Dickerson’s attempted Palin samizdat and those  like it certainly fall.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how the ethics of public figure’s behavior on Facebook and similar sites develops over the years.

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Responses

  1. Sarah Palin will have to deal with Bush and Bazoombas if she plans to run in 2012 – REVEALING story at:

    http://spnheadlines.blogspot.com/2010/11/jeb-bush-declares-for-2012.html

    Peace! 🙂

  2. For those who care, here is Facebook’s suggestions for public figures:

    http://www.box.net/shared/lki7vnvnj5

    It is largely just an explanation of the various features available through Facebook, but I can see the contours of some kind of emergent customary practice therein.


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