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Social Media

Social Media: Boon or Bane?

August 17, 2011

In the wake of the riots, which have spread throughout England, many are blaming social media as being the tool used to orchestrate the violence and destruction. We have previously written about the Student Protests and the revolution in Egypt, and the role social media played in each of these events. Now we have yet another instance of the power of social media.   

A week ago the British Prime Minister David Cameron is reported to have said that the free flow of information can sometimes be a problem. He stated that when ‘people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.’ The Government is blaming social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for helping to contribute to the cause of such mass violence and destruction throughout the country.  There is also some discussion of banning social media sites.

Indeed much of the violence was orchestrated via Twitter and Blackberry’s instant messaging service, BBM. In particular, Blackberry’s messenger system seems to have been the communication device of choice between the rioters, with a number of BlackBerry users receiving instant messages suggesting riot locations. According to Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch Europe, while Twitter has largely been the venue of spectators to violence and is a handy public venue for journalists to observe, it would appear the non-public Blackberry BBM messaging network have been the method of choice for organizing it’.

Each coin has two faces!

However, although Social media may have been used as a method to spread violence throughout London and the rest of the country, it has not just been used as a tool to spread destruction. Both Twitter and Facebook were used to organize cleanup efforts in the areas hit by the riots, as well as calls for peace after the Tottenham riots on Saturday. Additionally, these sites were used by people to show support to the police in the wake of the riots, with the number of people following the force on Twitter jumping from 3,000 to 13,000 and hits on Facebook increasing from 2,000 to 8,000.

So is it appropriate to enforce bans and shutdowns of social media sites in the wake of the riots?   While these sites are a powerful tool that may be used to coordinate the masses on scales that would previously have been impossible, is it really on to ban them?  What about freedom of speech?  As Matthew Ingram of tech blog GigaOm stated, ”It may be tempting to smother that kind of speech when a government feels it is under siege, as Britain seems to feel that it is, but doing this represents nothing less than an attack on the entire concept of freedom of speech, and that has some frightening consequences for any democracy.” Interestingly, Labour seems to be on the side of the Government on this issue, with the shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis statingfree speech is central to our democracy but so is safety and security.’

Curtailing the freedom of speech?

This is not the first instance where social media sites have been banned in an attempt to stop the spread of violence and unrest. The recently overthrown totalitarian Egyptian Government used this tactic in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution. The regime blocked methods of communication, disconnecting the country from the Internet, blocking sites such as Twitter, and disrupting mobile networks. If what happened there is anything to go by, blocking methods of communication did not stop the revolution in Egypt, and seems unlikely to quell any further riots in the UK.

Blocking social media channels will do nothing to solve the root problem that was the cause of the unrest, although it would undoubtedly make it harder for rioters to organize themselves.

Representatives of Facebook and Twitter have agreed to meet with the government, but both are opposed to being censored or blocked in the UK. Alec Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel said ‘we don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content’.

We will be watching to see if this proposal gets passed through, but what do others think about it?