What do you think about social media bans during times of crisis? One prominent British MP, Louise Mensch, supports the idea and receives backlash as a result.
In case you missed it, London did not have a good start to the month of August. Spurred by a police shooting, between August 6th 2011 and August 11th 2011, people took to the streets and rioted. The disruption caused damage, injuries, deaths, and the British Parliament to come back from vacation early. One of the touchstone issues surrounding the riots is the use of social media. Texting and BlackBerry Messenger, in particular, are receiving attention; police have suggested that the two forms of communication were used by young people to organize criminal activity.
As a result, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, suggested a social media “shut off” during times of crisis:
“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.”
The suggestion immediately generated controversy, and one of the voices to weigh in is Louise Mensch, a prominent Conservative MP in Britain. And what better medium to express her opinion than social media itself? She took to Twitter with the following tweets:
“Northamptonshire Police advise me that much of their time and resources were wasted answering false alarms due to soc media rumours.
“At the time, tweeted people should think hard before putting the phrase ‘rumours of’ into a tweet. Nonsense rumours about W’boro = 999 calls.”
“Twitter regularly down for maintenance, and if in a major national emergency police think Twitter and FB should take an hour off? So be it.
“I don’t have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don’t have a problem with a brief road or rail closure.
“If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what. We’d all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots.
“Social media isn’t any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service. We don’t worry about police temporarily closing those.
“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.”
It’s not exactly a rally cry, but the tweets were enough to generate backlash from Twitter users. Some compared the “road-closure” of social media to the kind of action taken by governments like Iran and China. Interestingly, it wasn’t just laypeople who took offense. A press officer for the Sussex Police noted that an alternative to shutting of social media is monitoring it more closely; he tweeted:
“Active online engagement has helped reduce calls and spread of untrue rumours.”
The exchange perfectly articulates some of the problems at the heart of the Prime Minister’s call to “shut-off” social media. Is Mensch correct – is a Twitter closure no different than a road block? Why isn’t the government trying to engage with social media users? What about the positive benefits of social media outlets during crisis?
The issue is neither Left and Right, nor black and white, and it is one that will likely impact other countries as social media continues to grow as a communication medium during times of both peace and unrest.