The White House has had an account up on flickr since Obama was inaugurated: The Official White House Photostream. It’s been quite a treat to get a view behind the scenes on a near daily basis and the images, shot mostly by Pete Souza and Chuck Kennedy are superb.
Since the beginning there have been the normal range of comments: “nice shot” to “I don’t like this President” and more and a few small skirmishes have broken out but as far as I can tell (and I watch the photostream daily) no one’s gotten hurt. Of course, many from outside of flickr have joined up to enter the fray and it’s pretty obvious who the trolls are who join flickr simply to comment negatively on various pictures of Obama. This is par for the course on flickr and while some of these folks can be upsetting, they come and go.
In the past week, however, there has been an interesting situation brewing that turns up the volume on the potential complexities of the White House having an account on a privately owned social media site.
In the comment thread to the above picture (click on it to view the thread which is two or more pages long as I post this) lies an interesting story. It’s been posted in many places but I don’t think the way it’s being told is accurate so here’s my take on it.
A few weeks ago, a user named something like: “johnsonshepherd” (he had a different account name then) started commenting in various threads in the White House photostream. His comments were provocative enough that I clicked on his then account to find that he only had a single contact and it was the White House account. To me, this smelled like a troll so I engaged him a bit but did not get pulled too deeply into argument (arguing with trolls generally leads to nothing good).
His beef with Obama has to do with Obama being transparent about torture although given the nature of his comments, I don’t believe that’s what he’s all about. He’s just not a big fan of Obama’s and is using a far-left anti-torture position to launch attacks from.
Then he posted a picture of an Abu Ghraib prisoner being tortured in one of his comments in the White House photostream and within a day, that comment and the offensive (and stolen) picture were deleted and according to him, his account on flickr was shut down. Some of us who have been using flickr for a while know well that like any social site, there is a list of rules called the “terms of service” that few read but that get enforced from time to time when people cross various lines. No doubt johnsonshepherd crossed a line.
johnsonshepherd has now come back (registered a new username) and is spamming the threads again and complaining about the White House account and flickr/Yahoo violating his rights to free speech by deleting his first account.
This story has now spread around to various sites that in my opinion have mischaracterized what actually happened and why both The White House and flickr/yahoo are within their rights to delete accounts that are in violation of flickr’s terms of service.
But, short of that, if johnsonshepherd posted a picture or made a spam-like comment in my photostream I’d delete his comment and block him. Doing this is part of flickr and it always has been. This gives account owners the power to control what the tone of comments is in their own accounts. No one should have to put up with hate speech and too much negativity in an online photo sharing account they’re paying for and flickr/yahoo makes it possible for account holders to control this.
Further, there is now an epidemic of people who, instead of starting their own blog, hijack comment threads in other people’s blogs or in this case, flickr accounts, and use them to “comment-blog” from.
johnsonshepherd believes that the White House account is different from other accounts because the President is a public servant and johnsonshepherd is a taxpayer and therefor his right to free speech should allow him to say what he wants in the White House account’s comment threads.
While the legal piece of this remains to be sorted out, up until johnsonshepherd was blocked and shut down I saw no evidence of the White House account or flickr blocking anyone and if you read back through the various comment threads you’ll see some pretty angry stuff posted there. Those comments have been allowed to stand even though it might be within the rights of the account holder to delete them.
In short, I think Pete Souza (the White House Photographer) or whoever is monitoring these threads is being quite hands-off in that they’re allowing a breadth of opinions to stand.
Posting a picture of torture crossed a line and action was taken. To this day we do not know if that action was taken by the White House or by flickr as a result of angry users reporting johnsonshepherd.
If you read through the thread under the picture I’ve posted above you’ll get a sense of what johnsonshepherd is about and for most of us who have experience with social media he’s what we’d call a troll.
Are all people with opposing views trolls? No. But people who voice those views in a way that violates the rules of the service are.
In the end what may happen is the White House will either close comments or find another place to post their pictures. That would be a shame because it would deprive tens of thousands of people, both in the United States and outside a view into the inner workings of this administration through flickr which has been and continues to be one of the best photo sharing services on the web.