The violent riots and looting in London and other major cities around the U.K. this past week have dominated the British mainstream press and kept a nation on tenterhooks, fearful as many were that their own towns and villages were just one hooded teenager away from all-out chaos.
A thicket of idiots taking to the streets to pillage and destroy certainly isn’t anything new, but events circa 2011 come with a slightly different flavour: social media. That’s right — today’s angry young mob is organized and efficient, and they’re using tools such as Facebook and Twitter to get things done.
Thankfully, order has slowly been restored, but the way that social media, and other platforms like the BlackBerry Messenger system, have been instrumental in the riots has led to much debate at the highest levels. In short, where can one point the finger?
Thankfully, David Cameron, the British Prime Minster, has a solution, which he outlined yesterday in an official statement at the House of Commons:
Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media” said Dave. “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. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.
Yes, magical bloody powers by the sounds of it. The problem, Dave, is this: social media, like pretty much everything else on the planet, works both ways. And that’s a good thing. I don’t like to raise the old no-light-without-dark argument, but I’m afraid you have given me no choice: One cannot exist without the other.
Facebook and Twitter aren’t conspirators in these events. They’re neutral entities. Technology does not have a say in how it is used. Good or bad, that choice is entirely yours to make. And if you choose not to use it, it’s largely incapable of doing anything at all. This isn’t Skynet. The machines are not, I repeat, not taking over.
All the wonderful things that can be done with social media — sharing your message, giving everyone an equal voice, bringing people together, and so on — can also be used for evil. That doesn’t make the platforms themselves evil. It simply means that, given half a chance, a certain percentage of every community is capable of doing bad things. And they’ll use whatever means are available to make those bad things become a reality.
Remember that old adage about blaming your tools? That’s exactly what this is, except the person saying it is David Cameron and he has the nuclear codes.
And even if we put all that to one side and agree that we are willing to do what Cameron is proposing, how exactly would it be actioned? How, for example, do you define ‘a looter’, inasmuch as how one would be identified on Facebook? Where would you isolate the difference between a person actively involved in the rioting and somebody sharing information about it? It might seem obvious when you read the messages on screen, but it isn’t when you’re talking about millions of statuses, shares, tweets and retweets. There’s absolutely no way even an army of people could digest every single update across all of the social media channels each and every time there’s the possibility of civil unrest.
Human error would be so incredibly high that we’d have to take it out of the equation. Instead, a team of scientists would no doubt announce some brilliant algorithm, which would be readily implemented, and before you know it two hundred skiing instructors will have been identified as trouble-makers and arrested because they used the word “balaclava.”
Of course, what Cameron is also overlooking is how instrumental social media was in opposing the riots, too. As the mob were breaking into shops and pilfering goods, thousands of people were using their phones to video and photograph these scumbags and then sharing the media on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, helping police and leading to many arrests.
The @riotcleanup Twitter profile attracted tens of thousands of followers in no time at all and played a key part in encouraging and helping Londoners put the pieces back together.
The authorities themselves were using social channels to provide updates and quell misinformation. Manchester police went as far as to publically name-and-shame looters on Twitter.
And many of those same morons who were using social media to organize their looting were also the same morons who were using social media to share photos of themselves posing with their loot, leading to their near-immediate arrest.
This is the good side of social media. And, despite appearances, and the inevitability of duality, it far outweighs the bad.
Cameron certainly wasn’t alone in exposing his naivety — other very silly people have also waded in, and TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher should be thoroughly ashamed of himself, even if he did get caught up in the moment — but when you’ve got the most powerful man in the United Kingdom making proclamations that are so ridiculous they make George W. Bush look like Martin Luther King, then you have a serious problem.
More than this, the country has a serious problem, because nonsensical as his rhetoric was, Cameron has the power to make crazy things happen. Like, for example, forcing the major Internet service providers to disable Facebook and Twitter during times of crisis (which already has party support). Or disabling BlackBerry Messenger. Or even pulling the plug on the entire Internet.
Sounds fanciful, right? And it would, if this exact same thing hadn’t been happening all around the world. Since December 2010 there have been revolutions (or attempts therein) in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, and major protests in Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. The citizens of these respective countries used social media to share their message and plight with the world, and in nearly every case the governments of these countries tried to prevent the distribution of said message by cutting off all access to social media.
And look how well that worked. So why would Cameron think he could do things any better, or differently? Because he’s British? You may well laugh, but that’s probably a lot of what it is.
Intellectuals might like to believe that something as disturbing as this could never gain traction in the U.K. or the U.S., but we said that about Justin Bieber.
Cameron’s Luddism is bad enough, but what makes me really nervous is that Twitter, a longstanding advocate of freedom of speech — who point blank refused to shut down the profiles of those involved during the riots — has said they’re willing to listen to the U.K. government about their mad proposal. And we all know what happens to a concept, no matter how ridiculous, when you agree to debate its merits: you give it substance.
Bottom line? If you want to see millions of people get really mad, just try switching off their connection to social media, en masse. Then each and every one of us will really have something to worry about.