Twitter and Facebook might be social, but they aren’t pushovers. Both social media companies are expected to refuse shutdowns during times of crisis.
Following the UK riots at the beginning of the month of August, fingers were wagging, hoping to find appropriate places to investigate the riots as well as to place blame. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger in particular – took a lot of initial heat. David Cameron notes in his initial response to the riots:
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. 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.”
His words were not taken lightly, immediately sparking debate and controversy about freedom of speech and censorship. Louise Mensch – a prominent Conservative MP – argued that shutting down social networks is no different than a road closure. Supporters of freedom of speech, however, were not impressed by the suggestion.
Home Secretary Theresa May has called a Home office summit for Thursday with representatives of social media giants, Twitter, Facebook and RIM. They will be joined by assistant commissioner of central operations at the Met police, police officers, and civil servants. It is expected that the meeting will discuss both how government can use social media more effectively during times of crisis as well as how the technology companies might take more responsibility for messages posted on their networks.
However, according to an article from the Guardian, it is expected that the social media outlets will offer “no concessions” when they meet. It is expected that the companies will warn the government that emergency measures could result in a new form of online censorship.
Further, the companies will likely review the measures they already have in place to remove dangerous messages. Facebook, for example, has said that it removed “several credible threats of violence”. According to a Facebook spokeswoman:
“We look forward to meeting with the home secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time.
In recent days we have ensured any credible threats of violence are removed from Facebook and we have been pleased to see the very positive uses millions of people have been making of our service to let friends and family know they are safe and to strengthen their communities.”
So, it is unlikely that there will be significant changes to either government or social media policy to account for “times of emergency”. It is an essential decision in social media history because while this particular event is specific to the United Kingdom, it will set a precedent for the role of social media around the globe.