Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Social Media not to blame for the #UKRiots

After a shocking, frightening week it appears that the state is once again a la mode. After eventually returning from Tuscany last week, David Cameron has been exercising the full extent of his executive power; lecturing police on tactics, dropping hints to the judiciary and promising a clampdown on social media - quite the turnaround for a decentralising Prime Minister.

The Premier told parliament last week that Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry should take more responsibility for their actions (I’m presuming all iPhone users were tucked away at home playing Angry Birds, ignoring Whatsapp and Livepin messages about the ‘100% off sale at Curries’). But whilst indignant reactions and talking tough are understandably vogue in the midst of the chaos, what Cameron is proposing has dangerous implications. Right wing rage may trend in the face of the kind of criminality we saw last week but as the nation calms, decisions that affect the general public will not be so well received.

Scapegoating social media at this point and suggesting a clampdown is as far as I’m concerned, Cameron looking and talking tough for the purpose of image. If set in motion however, joining the world’s anti-social media ranks would put the UK government in some rather unsavoury company. Believe me, this would be worse PR for the UK than last week’s anarchy.

Furthermore, should there be a clampdown on social media, where would the restriction end? Defining who is out of line and what is the wrong sort of content online is a fairly difficult matter – in such a grey area what else could and would a government be able to censor?

Jeff Jarvis last week asked “Who is to say what communication and content should be banned from whom on what platform? On my BlackBerry? My computer? My telephone? My street corner?” A question I’d imagine David Cameron and his advisors would struggle to muster a sufficient answer to without perilously tip toeing around the matter of free speech.  Twitter has already refused to close accounts of rioters to protect ‘freedom of expression.’ 

Social Media needs to be understood in the context of freedom of speech and whilst it has the potential to be a double edged sword it is clear that the benefits outweigh the negatives (Have we already forgotten the Arab Spring?). Social media keeps information flowing online, connecting people to what they are most passionate about and empowering them in the process. Restricting this is imposing a restriction on the public.

The fact of the matter is that social media as a combination of content sharing, a myriad of potential mediums and an online public is a modern phenomenon - rioting, looting and wanton criminality is not. Targeting social media was not the right response from Cameron.


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