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Why The Vilification of Social Media Has to Stop

Gordon Kelly

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Bans, aren't they brilliant. Websites, Internet Access and now social media. There have been similar thoughts in the past, they involved book burning – so it is probably a good thing they're going digital.

"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media," said Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on Thursday to a specially reconvened parliament after a week of London riots. "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. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers."

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Presumably some of those powers would include stopping potential rioters sending SMS, writing on online forums, using telephones and the postal service. Perhaps he could ban access to word of mouth, or would that just be silly?

The sad truth is what Cameron says is no less silly. Much as MP3, eBooks and AVIs are digital music, books and films; Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) are digitised communication. It is no easier to ban access to them than to ban free speech itself. A new Twitter account can be created in under a minute while the free fall of RIM from the boardroom to the street means pre-pay BlackBerrys can be bought in little longer. Furthermore acquiring both can be done without divulging your real information.

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With rioting having died down in recent days (it is not yet known whether it will return over the weekend) the technological repercussions have started. First will be the investigation of BBM archives under the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). RIM has agreed to the investigation, but under RIPA it cannot make public comment – even when threatened. BBM is a closed system and messages are encrypted so, questions of privacy aside, progress will be slow and whether it will lead to significant arrests is a matter for debate. Twitter is likely to be next under the spotlight, but how many incriminating tweets and suspects' accounts will remain by then?

Perhaps more to the point these steps are reactive, not proactive and they do little to stop future unrest – especially in the near future. Certainly there is justification for these measures, but it would be arguably more useful long term to stop fearing these mediums (as every generation has done its respective technologies) and instead embrace them.

Enarca

August 12, 2011, 4:51 pm

It's clear that you have been writing from ignorance on this article. If you have been following Police twitter feeds as closely as I have you would have noticed what a great job they have done. Nearly every Police twitter feed has increased its followers tenfold in the last few days. They have had extensive communication with the public, both reassuring them and gaining information form them about potential riots or those encouraging rioting on social networks. As a result, they have had unanimously positive feedback from the public.

The original premise of your argument is correct, social media can be used for good, but your attack of the Police is wholly unjustified and displays your own ignorance. Just check the twitter feeds of @gmpolice @wmpolice @nottspolice and even those areas that weren't affected by riots like @hantspolice and @sussex_police. Check the feeds, and moreover check the reaction from the public especially from 9-10th August.

Gordon394

August 12, 2011, 5:16 pm

@Enarca - unfortunately you are replying from a position of ignorance. The article actually praises @gmpolice in a specific update referring to its tweets over the last 24 hours. It also gives links to good examples of police Twitter use. How they have stepped up their game during the riots is commendable.

Unfortunately if you actually spend the time to look prior to that at feeds from the likes of @metpoliceuk you will see it is nothing more than a broadcast site with no public interaction. In fact @metpolice had only made 300 tweets in two years prior to the riots.

I am glad many forces are now improving their use of Twitter, but for most it comes only as a reaction when it should have been in place long before them. This is the point of the article: proactive vs reactive.

The continued lack of a specific police BBM PIN is also a significant omission.

Disgrace

August 12, 2011, 9:22 pm

Another good article Gordon and fully agreed.

However, you perhaps should have cemented your point better by highlighting the contrast between the UK and the likes of Bahrain, and as a result, the hypocrisy the government is clearly showing. In the space of merely five months, the government have forgotten the power of good these social networks did for the people of countries such as Bahrain and Egypt. To enforce bans upon the sites would be an act of which they had previously condemned of other governments, regardless of whether the people have a legitimate cause to rebel or not.

Blaming the social networks is absolutely nonsensical, baseless but entirely predictable of mindless leaders. The blame lies with to what ends people use them. In Bahrain, to gain democracy. In the UK, to loot and spread fear. That is a society issue, the responsibility to which the government is trying to wash away.

The hypocrisy is nigh on unbelievable.

jingyeow

August 12, 2011, 9:52 pm

Gordon - Irony. You yourself were advocating BBM be shut down on Twitter similar to the Tech Crunch writer Mike Butcher. In the latter case his tweets disappeared and a near identikit article like this appeared. http://eu.techcrunch.com/2011/08/11/absolute-explosion-%E2%80%94-how-blackberry-bbm-fed-the-riots-says-contact/

If you're going to change your opinion so rapidly, at least include a disclaimer. It makes it difficult to read an article like this and not question the integrity of the writer.

RJB

August 13, 2011, 1:16 pm

You said "It is no easier to ban access to them than to ban free speech itself ".

The UK has no laws protecting free speech - Isn't it time we had a Bill of Rights?

scotw

August 13, 2011, 3:19 pm

Good article, we need to stand against our politicians whose stock answer over the last 15 years has been "ban it" whenever they encounter something they don't like or don't understand.

Social media is not to blame, poor job prospects, lack of discipline in schools, education targets, soft-touch policing, benefits culture all have a part to play in the riots - social media- no.

Gordon394

August 15, 2011, 5:26 am

That's a can of worms. There are certainly arguments to be made for it.

Being pedantic, my argument is that it is hard to ban free speech - not that we have a specific law protecting it ;)

Gordon394

August 15, 2011, 5:28 am

You're right, the causes for the riots are numerous. For too many to get into here. But blanket bans have very rarely been the answer to anything.

Gordon394

August 15, 2011, 5:30 am

That's a valid point, but it lacks context. The tweet you mention was posted at the height of the riots when - and I think you will agree - the live TV coverage across multiple channels was suggesting them closer to World War 3. In this light shutting down BBM would have been beneficial.

As the dust settled and the real picture emerged: not a violent demonstration against a shooting, but teenage looting so does my opinion. I can only work with the facts as given at any one moment. It would be far worse not to change personal opinion when presented with new evidence.

I cannot answer for Mike (a good friend), but I chose not to remove my tweet. It is what I felt at the time, as is this editorial now more information is available.

Daniel Gerson

August 16, 2011, 1:23 pm

Well, we're in complete agreement on this one ;-)

You should submit Cameron's Government to Reason.tv's Nanny of the Month award :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26hlpBnc20o&playnext=1&list=PL2DD00E99B83A258A

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