Topic: Science & Technology

Freeping Ethics
(6/21/2004)

Here's a word we didn't need: "freeping." We didn't need the activity it describes, either, but thanks to the wild, wild wilderness of web culture and its evolving ethics (or lack of them), "freeping" now means something. What it means is coordinating efforts to over-whelm on-line polls with thousands of silly, obscene, irrelevant, or politically pointed responses. The name comes from "Free Republic," a politically conservative activist website that has a readership especially responsive to poll sabotage requests. Recently Grand Forks, North Dakota City Council candidate Scott McNamee asked his fellow Free Republic visitors to stack an on-line poll offered by a Grand Forks radio station's website. When his opponent questioned the ethics of the stunt, NcNamee apologized while denying that "freeping" was unethical. After all, stacking polls is a web-world tradition, he argued.

Ethics Scoreboard just decided who it is not voting for in the Grand Forks City Council race.

To save time, let's just tick off the ethical fallacies in the pro-freeping argument, shall we? Luckily we have the supportive column of a web pundit named Lou Cabron, who is colorfully if crudely described as the "resident a--hole" on the webzine GettingIt.

  • "Polls are little more than a gimmick for generating traffic to undeserving sites." Even if this were true, why would it justify intentionally sabotaging a poll? If the site is truly "undeserving" (whatever that is), then people won't visit it. The people who set up polls are either interested in the results themselves or they set them up for the enjoyment of those who participate. Absolutely nobody is hurt in the process. Foiling harmless amusement is a gratuitously nasty activity, and that is unethical.

  • "Poll-stacking [is] an Internet tradition." This is even a lame argument for a "resident a--hole." Using a spray can to deface subway walls is a New York City tradition too. Lots of lousy behavior becomes traditional; that's how living environments become harsh, rude, ugly and unpleasant. The objective of living ethically is to make our communities better places to live in. The web community is no different.
  • "Online polls have been proven worthless," This is factually untrue: online polls are worth whatever online polls are worth. Absent sabotage, they should accurately give a snap-shot of what people who vote on a particular poll on a certain website think about a given subject. Major League Baseball's All-Star voting is substantially done on-line. It isn't "scientific" and it doesn't monitor multiple votes, but the poll has worth: it tells MLB who the people who care enough to vote want to see in the All-Star game. Mr. Cabron and apparently Mr.McNamee feel that they would have a right to prevent this by "freeping, " even though they don't care who wins this particular poll. They don't: it is wrong to be destructive and to frustrate others, even when their objective seems trivial.
  • "Internet folks on the left are guilty of the exact same thing." This one comes courtesy of a McNamee supporter rather than Cabron. Indeed, Democratic Underground has its own name, not quite as euphonious, for freeping from the political left: "D-Uing." It doesn't matter. "The other guy does it" is one of the hoariest of all invalid ethical rationalizations., and one of the most damaging, because it guarantees a downward spiral of behavior. Witness some of the defenses offered by talk-radio types for the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison.
  • You ought to apologize for being idiot enough to take such a thing seriously and just laugh it off." This argument is from yet another McNamee defender. It is the siren call of the slippery slope: a particular unethical act is too trivial to call unethical. But if there is one thing we know about human nature, it is that small unethical acts lead to larger ones. If something is wrong, it should be called wrong. If something is funny (freepers obviously think freeping is funny), that doesn't inoculate it from being called wrong if it deserves to be.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan enlightened us with his "broken window" theory, describing how the simple act of leaving a broken window unrepaired could start a cycle of callousness and neglect that will turn an urban neighborhood into a slum. "Freeping" is like that. And candidate McNamee is a good case in point: in order to pull off his freeping stunt, he masqueraded as someone else on-line. That's called lying; is lying to perpetrate a freep also something to "laugh off'? One wonders what other funny lies McNamee is capable of.

Learning to be ethical takes work; it also takes consistency. Causing needless harm, even needless minor harm, to others is a habit to break, not to start. Freeping is a broken window in the Internet community, and it ought to be repaired.

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