Shutting Down Social Media Fans the Flames of Protest

It is the revolutionary’s friend, an instrument of democracy, or it is the rioter’s friend, a tool for criminal activity. Depending on whom you ask, social media deserves either a lot of credit or a lot of blame.

Lately social media has been taking mostly blame. David Cameron and the U.K. government made social media sites and BlackBerry Messenger culpable for the recent London riots and considered (and is still kind of considering) limiting social media use during instances of civil unrest. Similarly San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency shut down cellphone service at several stations after learning that people were planning to use social media and text messaging to organize a protest.

However, Cameron and BART officials may want take note of Navid Hassanpour’s new paper, “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest.” Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, studied the recent uprising in Egypt and uses the decision by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to completely shut down the Internet and cellphone service on Jan. 28 during the protests in Tahrir Square to demonstrate his thesis that blocking media and communication actually encourages civil unrest and protest, contrary to popular belief.

Instead of stifling unrest, what ended up happening in Egypt once communication lines were cut was that protests became more spread out across the country and, therefore, became much less manageable for police. While many contend that social media fuels social activism, Hassapour argues the opposite:

The proponents of such arguments overlook several facts. Social media can act against grassroots mobilization. They discourage face-to-face communication and mass presence in the streets. Similar to more traditional and highly visible media, they create greater awareness of risks involved in protests, which in turn can discourage people from taking part in demonstrations.

In other words, while social media can fan the flames of protest, it also allows people to hear other people’s expressions of caution or fear, inviting doubt and maybe discouraging participation. It can cause the spread of confusion and mixed messages, ultimately diluting, decreasing or at least limiting a possible protest movement to one main event rather than many decentralized and uncontrollable demonstrations like what resulted in Egypt.

Whether it is for the sake of maintaining free speech rights or for the sake of not encouraging civil unrest, the moral of the story is: governments, don’t block social media sites and cellphone service during times of civil unrest — it doesn’t do anyone any good.

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