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The social media upshots of the London riots

The London Riots have done a lot more than expose the country’s simmering racial and class tensions. They’ve also revealed the Western world’s hypocrisy when it comes to free speech and social media. When social media was used in the Egyptian and Tunisian protests as a means to organise demonstrations and rally supporters, the western world cheered at the innovative use of social media that was seen to have come into its own. But when the London rioters used social media for the exact same purpose it was called anarchy and the UK government called for social networks need to be shut down.

The British Prime Minister has called for the right to shut down social networks during states of emergency. David Cameron is reported to have said, “… 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.”

Interestingly, Facebook, Twitter and RIM (whose BBM service was used extensively during the riots) have said that they are willing to work with the government in this regard, or at least to hear what it has to say.

This, of course, has caused outrage among freedom of speech organisations and social media enthusiasts. It’s been likened to shooting the messenger and blaming WWII on radio. It’s been called a painful knee-jerk reaction. It’s like blaming guns for murder and cars for accidents. In other words, it’s rather blinkered. Especially considering that social media has also been used for a lot of good in the aftermath of the riots. Even more especially considering that it’s being used by the police to apprehend suspects.

While rioters were using the password protected BBM service to incite violence, more civic-minded people were using Twitter to organise clean-up crews and shelters for those affected by the protests. The hashtag #riotcleanup was one of the most used on Twitter and celebrities such as Simon Pegg used it to send people to www.riotcleanup.co.uk to find out more about volunteering. There is a Facebook page supporting the efforts of the Metro Police and the police have uploaded photos of suspected rioters to Flickr and asked the public to help identify them. Google has lent its facial recognition technology (which also caused a ruckus when it was launched) to aid the identification and capture of suspects. The moral and ethical implications of this move are still being discussed.

Still the calls for tighter control over social networks go on, with the governments doing the calling seemingly oblivious to the similarities between their reactions and those of the governments they so loudly criticise for censorship and freedom of speech violations, like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Zimbabwe and China.

Smh.com.au cites Mike Conradi, who, in an interview with The Guardian, said, “It [cutting off access to social media] would certainly put the UK in a difficult position in terms of talking to authoritarian regimes and trying to convince them not to turn off their networks.”

In the same smh.com.au article, James Griffin, from social media intelligence firm SR7, was cited as saying, “Recently, both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives passed a motion condemning the obstruction of telecommunications during protests in Iran.” He added, however, “I would argue that the difference here is that whilst one group of people on the other side of the world are fighting for democracy, these people are robbing fashion labels and electronics stores. If the Cameron government has the evidence to show that by limiting access to social media it will stop them from planning violence and criminality then it is an option that they should explore.”’

Commenting on similar ideology in the US, Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said, “We can arrest and prosecute people for the crimes they commit. You are not allowed to shut down people’s cell phones and prevent them from speaking because you think they might commit a crime in the future.”

In another smh.com.au article, Evgeny Morozov, who wrote The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, said, “The domestic challenges posed by the internet demand a measured, cautious response in the West. Leaders in Beijing, Tehran and elsewhere are awaiting our wrong-headed moves, which would allow them to claim an international licence for dealing with their own protests.”

Alex Bruns, associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology, said, “It is, to be blunt, just staggeringly dumb … he wants to shut Twitter and Facebook down, just because someone, somewhere might use them to plan criminal activities? You must be joking. By the same reasoning, why not take out the entire internet and phone network as well? Cracking down on social media at home while promoting it as a tool for democracy abroad simply doesn’t make sense.”

But, Tory MP Louise Mensch, has said, “Common sense. If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won’t implode.”

Meanwhile, in an incredibly practical, but somewhat insensitive article on Search Engine Watch, Frank Watson has pointed out the marketing lessons digital marketers can learn from the riots. Things like the demographics of different social media users (youngsters are more likely to be on BBM – at least youngsters in the UK, with nefarious purposes). Older, more responsible people are on Twitter.

For every national emergency there is a marketing silver lining.

(Image by franksteiner, CC by 2.0, via Flickr)

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