Putting the Social Media Genie Back in the Bottle

David Cameron needs to manage British society, not British social media.

In a move that seems more characteristic of the Chinese or Middle Eastern governments, the U.K. government has been closely monitoring social media sites and BlackBerry Messenger in the midst of the London riots that began last Saturday. The reason: social tools are great for organizing, even if it’s not the kind of organizing Cameron would like. The U.K. government considered shutting down social media communications in an effort to control the riots and as a measure for controlling similar situations in the future. As Prime Minister David Cameron said in his emergency statement to the House of Commons:

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.

It is painfully obvious though that it isn’t “right” for a democratic government to stop people from communicating on social media sites for clear freedom of speech conflicts. Although, perhaps that is easier to say from this side of the pond; freedom of expression in the U.K. is a qualified right that comes with a handful of restrictions in the interests of, among others, national security and public safety. But even so, it is pretty scary to think about how much the U.K. government has been monitoring people’s social media activity and that a total social media shutdown was even considered. It’s a slippery slope to 1984.

What’s more, it’s futile. Shutting down soical networks is bound to be a game of Whack a Mole, with new tools popping up to replace those the authorities cut off. The only way to make it work practically is to install a far-ranging Internet censorship approach like China, which has its Great Firewall. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Altogether now: Just like any mode of communication, social media can be used for delivering both good and bad news, for organizing both helpful and harmful activities. It’s ironic that a government like Cameron’s would decry the role it’s playing while applauding social media’s role in fomenting uprisings in Egypt and other undemocratic outposts.

It’s easy to blame social media for many societal ills, but social media itself is not the problem. You know what they say about messengers — and that’s exactly what social media is — don’t shoot them. If Cameron wants to get to the root of what caused the riots, then he needs to examine social issues, not social media.



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