Was Social Media to blame for the UK Riots? Should the Government shut it down!

Following the recent Riots across England, the UK Government is considering the possibility of “shutting down” social media in times of trouble.  Was social media the cause?..  Is pressing the off button the answer?..

The following personal opinions expand on my comments which featured on the recent “Drum Scottish Media Podcast” – listen to it on SoundCloud, or find it on Itunes.  Apologies in advance for the “note-like” style of this post – That’s what these were, my notes, and so don’t judge my grammar and punctuation!

 

The Government reaction…

It’s not unusual for governments to have a knee jerk reaction… to be seen to be doing something extreme under extreme circumstances, and the rioting was certainly extreme.

Last weeks news about the 2 chester men jailed for 4 years each shows that the government and the courts are looking to be seen as acting strongly – some would say disproportinatley, and their overall reaction to social media’s role in this is similar…

..but I’d personally hope that even they see the initial response as overkill, and potentially more damaging than good…

 To clarify what the Government have actually said so far…

Specifically, Home Secretary Theresa May who plans to sit down with the likes of Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook etc, to discuss the issues:

“Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and messaging services like Blackberry Messenger have been used to coordinate criminality, and stay one step ahead of the police… I will convene a meeting with ACPO (The Association of Chief Police Officers) , the police and representatives from the social media industries to work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capability of the police.”

She goes on to say:

“Among the issues we will discuss is whether we should disrupt messaging services when trouble is being planned.”

This is almost a copy of what David Cameron had said earlier in the week which was:

“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,”

 The tone of all of these govrnment comments is pretty much a damning one for the social media tools..  but what we’ve got to remember, are that they are just tools…  just ways that allow people to converse and share info, and chat,… so…

Should governments have the power to turn off social media during riots and unrest?

Some people will think this is a good thing – but – where does it stop…?  Jam all the mobile phone signals..?  Turn off the internet?  Burn all the notepads and pencils? – I mean seriously – do they think that restricting use of the tools will stop certain people mistreating them?…  

Look at Egypy, look at Libya, look at China…  all places that have banned and limited the use of social media tools – did it stop people using them?  Of course not – did it encourage them to use them more?  Yes it did….

 

The GOOD of social media…

The other thing that I feel strongly about is the way the media report on the use of social media…  the same way that that computer games are the cause of street violence and car jacking, and the TV is the cause of obesity.  It’s way to easy to highlight the BAD..  but everything has an element of bad in it – and often the good is forgotten about….

Well, just as looters have used tech to co-ordinate, Londoners have resorted to their own methods of reacting to the situation in a crowd-sourced manner.

A hashtag started trending in relation to the cleanup: #RiotCleanup and another response has been to start mapping where incidents occurred.  Other uses have helped to actually catch the rioters…  CatchaLooter (@Catchalooter on Twitter), and numerous blogs have been setup where people are encouraged to upload pictures of looters.

***Combine this with the new facebook facial recognition – and you’ve got a system that’s potentially more effective – response times – for fighting crime than any police system!**

All good uses of Social media to help with the aftermath…

Is this a form of citizen journalism, or community empowerment – or Is this advocating a new form of citizen vigilantism? Or is the just a faster response than the Police would ever be capable of without the public’s help…  the police are doing it themselves now..(see Greater Manchester example below)

And of course there’s the great Scottish example, where it seems that the whole of Scotland on facebook, turned on the guy who setup his “Let’s start a riot in Glasgow”..  with people en-masse reporting him to facebook and the authorities, and the inevitable follow up arrest!..  Don’t think that got any media attention outside Scotland?

The point is – to say that Social Media is used for “plotting violence, disorder and criminality” is absolutely true – by a small minority…  a fact that I think is conveniently forgotten when the government wants to be seen to be taking tough action. 

 

The role of the police…

One of Thersa May’s comments that I do agree with…

… “work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capability of the police.”

I think that Is a good thing – the police usage – and probably even their basic understanding of some of these tools is so mixed – some of them get it, some don’t….

For example – The official Metrepolitan police twitter feed – has tweeted 640 times in 2 years…  (most of them in the past few weeks funnily enough – a bit of damage limitation I’m guessing), remains a broadcast channel for them, with virtually ZERO interaction with the public…41,000 followers, and they follow back 10.  By no means a good case study in Twitter usage on how to engage an audience…

Even when some of the individual forces who have been doing it better have gotten it wrong…  you’ll maybe have seen reports yesterday about one of the suspected rioters having his home burnt down vigilante style…  how did this happen?  Because Greater Manchester Police tweeted his name and address – before the guy has even been convicted!??  And this from a force that up until yesterday were seen to do social media well, and had a previously good record of engaging with the community through twitter…

But credit where credit’s due –  some of the individual forces are doing it much better…  Sussex Police for example…  they run a realtime blog, and utilise twitter to keep the public updated..  so you can imagine it was heavily used over the past couple of weeks…  But they recently thanked the community for engaging with them on twitter, by finding out the official news rather than flooding the phonelines as would have been the case in the past…

And to be a little fairer to Manchester – they have used the tools for good as well…

GMP launches #shopalooter campaign.
Give us info and make the looters pay for their crimes..
Upload info at http://bit.ly/c3q1qk

So – if we ban the tools  to limit the BAD from social media, then we limit all the good as well….  And that’s even before we begin to talk about freedom of expression, and access to information, and human rights…

 

Legislation and new laws?

A statement by the Police saying “that anyone inciting violence on social networks will have to deal with the authorities.”  – OF COURSE!!??!!

But does the current law allow them to do so…  or are today’s laws out of date for this Generation Y public.

Cameron:

“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers. Police were facing a new circumstance where rioters were using the BlackBerry Messenger service, a closed network, to organise riots. We’ve got to examine that and work out how to get ahead of them.”

 The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act already allows them to get access to BBM messages or other social network material once an order has been issued, so actually, social media is no different really from the phone system and the postal system, which can be intercepted if the police can identify suspects in advance.

But to go further and to have live monitoring of random conversations across BBM or Facebook etc – this would require new laws, a huge investment in police time, and strong involvement from the various networks themselves.

 

Questions

Should the networks be more proactive about banning people and take some responsibility?

Should blackberry, facebook and twitter etc have stronger partnerships with the Police and other agencies to allow the trouble to be identified earlier..  to flush out who the people are, and to auto-report certain things to the police?

Or should the Police and authorities have the right to just shut it down..?

…all of the above – probably very doable, but all opening a whole can of worms with regard privacy and civil liberties! 

 

Any thoughts?

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