The Guardian online recently reported that Home Secretary Theresa May will examine the role of social media in the recent London riots, amid many politicians blaming social networking sites and messenger systems for helping to orchestrate the violence.
PM David Cameron warned that sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as BlackBerry Messenger should take more responsibility for what is posted on their networks, and threatened to ban people that were using the sites to provoke violence.
On Thursday 11th of August, MP Karen Buck went further in the damnation of social media, and called for ‘Inquiry into role of social media’ in London’s gang culture and its contribution to last month’s riots, reported Amelia Gentlemen in the Guardian online.
Social media sites and Blackberry messaging, Buck claims are used to organise gang activity and accordingly played a significant part in the organisation of the rioting seen recently across the country: “The way that gangs have emerged very strongly in the past few years has been facilitated by the use of social media.”
One could, and some have, directly critiqued this negative appraisal of social media’s role in our society. Kevin Harris and Hugh Flouch claimed that Twitter feeds had been productive during the riots themselves: ‘As events spread south on Sunday evening, the Brixton blog Twitter stream trended high across London, keeping people informed about transport availability and other news.’
Twitter was also used to co-ordinate the clean up, giving a community the united feel that it had been lacking the night before, directed at of helping those targeted : “Does anyone know what is being done for these poor people, or if a fund has been set up to help them?”
Regardless of these arguments for and against, there is a larger issue being debated regarding Cameron’s call for a clampdown on social networking sites. Many have spoken out against this move on principle, citing a need for freedom of speech and likening the move to that of totalitarian governments in Libya or Egypt during recent unrest.
From January 27th to February 2nd, the Egyptian government took the drastic action of cutting off all internet and mobile phone services across the country, after Egyptians took to the streets as part of widespread protests against President Hosni Mubarak on January 25th. This action sparked international outrage over the violation of human rights.
Admittedly, Cameron is not calling for such drastic action but the thinking is the same – if you don’t like what people are saying, ban it. As Jeff Jarvis comments in the Guardian Online, addressing Cameron: ‘Beware, sir. If you take these steps, what separates you from the Saudi government demanding the ability to listen to and restrict its BBM networks? What separates you from Arab tyrannies cutting off social communication via Twitter or from China banning it?’
Regardless of the various positive and negative opinions on the impact of social media upon our society, it seems necessary for this avenue of communication to be maintained. Without open channels of communication airing the opinions of the public, the government is taking the freedom, and therefore the responsibility, away from the people.
The actions of a disturbingly large number of individuals last month was criminal and destructive, but the means of communication which undoubtedly played a part must be kept open to allow individuals to make their own decisions on what to say and how to behave.
In the wake of the riots it seems that we do need to take a long hard look at our society, but the implications of banning social media seems to raise more issues than it solves. It seems to be a move that is not only controversial in outcome but also questionable in motivation.