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.