The Conservatives Versus Social Media

As the dust settles post-riots, David Cameron's threats to black-out social media seem to be a superficial distraction from much deeper problems. Should we be shooting the messenger or tackling the cause of the UK's unrest?
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As the dust settles post-riots, David Cameron's threats to black-out social media seem to be a superficial distraction from much deeper problems. Should we be shooting the messenger or tackling the cause of the UK's unrest?

2011 so far has been the year of social media. Well, it's been a year of earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear catastrophe, uprising, rioting and a test match thrashing of India, but allow me to continue.

It started back in 2009. During the Iranian uprising Barack Obama's globetrotting fixer, Hillary Clinton nailed Ol' Glory to the mast of the good ship Freedom of Speech: "Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress”. Even then, speculation began on how a kind of Domino Theory of the Internet could be used to topple tyrants and spread the good word of western liberal democracy with nary a shot being fired.

In October 2010, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne was spokesman, as the UK climbed about the Internet freedom ship. He met Facebook marketing manager and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi, to declare that freedom of expression is “one of our most cherished values in the United Kingdom” and that he was “working very hard” on delivering access to knowledge via the web. During the early days of the Arab Spring, Twitter, Facebook and the 'internets' in general were praised by most of the Western world as the channels through which the winds of change blew. Arabian autocrats cowered in their gilded palaces whilst their subjects demanded democracy. As the uprising in Egypt began to spread and the government began to lose control, Mubarak's people shut down the internet -with the support of Vodafone- to prevent protesters from spreading their own information about what was happening in Tahir Square. David Cameron honked his outrage: “The response they have shown is quite appalling...It is people who want to have basic freedoms that we take for granted in the UK.”

I sat bleary-eyed in the ITV News newsroom half-way through a second 18 hour shift at the peak of the London riots, Twitter helped us keep a handle on things in way that flaky police press officers couldn't.

The web was down, but the message still got out. Here at ITN -and at bureaus and newsrooms across the globe- a dedicated phone line was established so that Egyptians could Tweet or record updates to live blogs and the like. Eventually, those in power saw the futility of shutting down the internet and full access was restored.

However, after all his rhetoric on the global stage, it would seem that our illustrious leader isn't quite ready to put his money where his mouth with regards allowing the UK the luxury of the Internet freedoms he feels are so vital to other nations. All it took was a few days of disorder and chaos. Five people died. While those deaths diminish us all in a way, what happened in London, Manchester and Birmingham didn't exactly threaten to bring about the total collapse of the UK and the Commonwealth.

In David Cameron’s prepared address to the House of Commons post-riots he had changed his stance somewhat from the beacon of the liberal west he'd wanted to be back in March. “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organized via social media...Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.”

Cheers Dave. He seems to think that by banning people from using, or shutting down social media to communicate will make the problem go away, just like the rest of the Tories seem to think that locking everyone up will solve the deep rooted social and economic problems that preceded the disorder. Social media may well have played a small part in helping the riots spread but it certainly didn't cause them and even holding meetings about the potential of blocking them is an ineffectual, reactionary attempt to ignore the wider problems in our society.

I'm too young, just about, to remember the Toxteth, Broadwater Farm and Brixton riots in the 1980s but I do know that they preceded the invention of BBM and mobile 3G networks. How did people co-ordinate during civil unrest in years gone by? By talking and meeting up, but does the government dare ban public speaking, union meetings or demonstrations? Not yet, at least. Historically speaking, the French revolution didn't need Twitter, so why talk of banning a medium of communication that would set a very sinister precedent?

We don't blame the Royal Mail for letter bombs or Boeing for the World Trade Centre attacks. The blame -and cause of the problem- isn't in the delivery, it's in the message.

In the ten years -at best- that we've had social media, it has developed into a convenient tool to help spread information, post embarrassing drunken photos and to stalk ex-girlfriends. The argument that such methods are exclusively used by those with nefarious purposes are very weak indeed.

As an article in The Guardian stated, analysis of tweets during recent unrest appears to undermine the case for banning people from social networks. Initial study by the data-journos at Granuaid towers appears to show that Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting -not to spread more fire and thievery.

And we saw social media being used for good, as well, let's not forget.The #riotcleanup Twitter campaign saw thousands turning out to clean up their cities, that probably would've stayed at home otherwise. New media was a great way of keeping up with the speed and spread of the trouble.

I can vouch for this, too. As I sat bleary-eyed in the ITV News newsroom half-way through a second 18 hour shift at the peak of the London riots, Twitter helped us keep a handle on things in way that flaky police press officers couldn't. You had to sift through a lot of rumour and bullshit, "They've let tigers loose at London Zoo!" Tweeted hundreds of idiots, starting #LondonZoo to trend at one point. But still, when reports come from trustworthy accounts and are backed up with video and photos, Twitter became more valuable than the Press Association newswires. Indeed, the home editor over at Sky News, Mark Evans, commented: "You could actually turn off your TV and get as good a picture of what was happening just on Twitter." Not to mention, people leaving messages on social media make them easier to track and perhaps convict than it would be if the riots had been organised in dark backstreets or dingy estate pubs.

Law enforcement and the government need to catch up with the newly omnipresent existence of social media, but the current knee-jerk proposals are veering the wrong way and could create a foundation from which a police-state could be built.

Facebook, Twitter, Google + and the platforms that will inevitably evolve in the future are now part and parcel of our society. They are not intrinsically good or bad; they are a facilitator of both. We don't blame the Royal Mail for letter bombs or Boeing for the World Trade Centre attacks. The blame -and cause of the problem- isn't in the delivery, it's in the message. Or as one of the Twitterati put it last week, "Blaming Twitter for the London riots is like blaming guitars for James Blunt."

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