“The Twitter Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 2012. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Twitter begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”
The role that social media played in the recent UK riots, which started in London but quickly spread to Manchester, Bristol and other major towns, has seen fevered debate from all sides.
While it’s certainly true that Twitter, Facebook and (notoriously) the Blackberry messenger system did play a part in how many of those involved organised and coordinated their movements, social media was also hugely beneficial in reporting crime, capturing criminals and cleaning up the mess.
Still, this hasn’t stopped a major British MP summoning the heads of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry to discuss the matter further.
Keith Vaz is the Labour Party politician and member of Parliament for Leicester East. He is the country’s longest-serving Asian MP and has been Chairman of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee since 2007, whose role is to examine “the expenditure, administration and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies”.
“Today I have written to the Chairmen of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry because it is absolutely clear that the new media had a role in the number of people who turned up at various places,” he says. “It is clear that people were using the private BlackBerry network to announce that there is going to be riot in such and such street and such and such time.”
Scotland Yard have also announced that they are hunting down the “really inflammatory and inaccurate” messages used on social media platforms to coordinate and incite the riots.
“This is a new phenomenon to the world and it certainly challenges all police forces,” Vaz said.
In 2004, following the murder of a 14-year old boy, Vaz pushed for an investigation into the links between video games and violence, after the parents of the victim believed the killer was influenced by the controversial game Manhunt. The police dismissed the claim – the only copy of the game belonged to the victim, not the killer – but the issue was soon championed by Tony Blair, and ultimately the sequel Manhunt 2 became the first video game to be banned in the UK for 10 years.
“This is an excellent decision by the British Board of Film Classification, showing that game publishers cannot expect to get interactive games where players take the part of killers engaged in ‘casual sadism’ and murder,” said Vaz of the outcome.
The latest course of action by the minister would seem to indicate that his understanding of modern technology and new media remains trapped somewhere between ignorant and naïve.
As I wrote here for our sister blog AllFacebook, social media doesn’t have an agenda. It’s entirely neutral, shaped and defined wholly by those using it. This isn’t Skynet. And as we witnessed during the violence, it was used for at least as much ‘good’ (if not significantly more) than it was for any ‘evil’.
Yes, these crimes were horrible, and the perpetrators should and must be brought to justice. But trying to find fault and lay the blame with the technology is, at best, folly. And at worst, highly irresponsible.
In short: it’s a poor workman who blames the tools. Whether Vaz’s letters will be entirely ignored by Twitter, Facebook and Rimm remains to be seen.