The U.K. Riots – A Look at Claims Against Social Media as a Violent Tool for Organization

Early this August, amidst widespread rioting in the UK, British officials including Prime Minister David Cameron met with representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry to discuss ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime in periods of civil unrest. Cameron spoke to Parliament mid August, promoting the stranglehold on social media connectivity in times of trouble:

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized 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 Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

At the end of August, Al Jazeera reported the following  statement made by the UK’s Home Office concerning the probe on social media’s role in the violence:

“Social networking is not a cause of the recent disturbances but a means of enabling criminals to communicate. We are working with the police to see what action can be taken to prevent access to those services  by customers identified as perpetrators of disorder or other criminal action.”

David Cameron meets with high ranking police officers in the aftermath of early rioting.

The news has struck a sense of anger and nervousness into those involved in civil liberties organizations around Western Europe. In the same AJ broadcast, Index on Censorship member Emily Butselaar expressed her disgust with the plans for widespread social media lock-downs.

“I’m actually appalled that the suggestion was even made. Immediately after David Cameron made that suggestion in Parliament, which two countries came out to offer their congratulations? China and Iran. Are we, in the democracy we see ourselves in, really wanting to give the impression to the world that autocracies and theocracies shutting our social media networks in times of crisis is okay? No we don’t.”

Index on Censorship’s news editor, Padraig Reidy, shared similar sentiments.

“It seems like a bizarre and kind of knee-jerk reaction by the government,… We’ve seen this kind of thing time and time again, especially with young people, when it comes to technology. Now it’s social networks and smartphones. A few years ago it was video games. Before that it was horror films. More recently, we’ve seen this kind of thing in Egypt,… just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. These things weren’t caused by Twitter or BlackBerry.”

When members of Blackberry an Twitter met with British Officials last month, they  defended the public’s use of their services, and many argued that the opposite results had actually been achieved from social media, and that in fact the services were used as a ‘force of good’. Members of Blackberry’s Owner, telecommunications company Research In Motion, appeared before the Affairs Select Committee last month, where Stephen Bates, RIM”s UK managing director, insisted the technology had been used in not a violent matter but rather a positive one during the rioting. He told MP’s the following:

“On the whole the vast majority abide by the law and use social media systems as a force for good,… We saw many instances while the riots were happening where social media were used to check people were safe and they had got to places were they wanted to.”

Although the outcome of the attempts from Cameron and certain other officials to create a ‘kill switch’ have been to no avail, and the UK Government has now sought to not close access to social media during times of civil disobedience and violence, we still must examine the situation and ask ourselves why the response to the riots highlighted social media in the way it did. Why had David Cameron placed much of the blame on Twitter and Blackberry Instant Messaging without carefully examining the events?

There seems to be a large contrast between the way social media has been portrayed in the West as compared to the East in terms of activism. With the ongoing Arab Spring being the largest example of the possibility of social media as a huge tool for organization, the technology has been heralded as key to the accomplishments of protesters and  the overthrow of men as powerful as Hosni Mubarak. It seems in the west, or more specifically in this case the UK, that the media has ridiculed the use of social media as a tool for activists. When groups use the technology in the west for change, it is often portrayed as a ridiculous folly in the media, and the governments which praise those under authoritarian regimes for using the same technology to promote positive change believe the power should be in their hands to shut down social media in cases where it is used in the public sphere during rioting.

One must remember that correlation does not equal causation. Just because more individuals in the UK were tweeting during the riots doesn’t mean that the technology was the cause of the violence itself, or organization of violent groups for that matter. It is safer to assume that a majority of those tweeting were merely spectators, commenting on the actions occurring in their environment. Those guilty of promoting violence and committing violent acts should serve their due punishments, but crippling a useful tool for others to communicate with each other during such times would be a poor decision.

A more thorough examination of social media’s play in the UK riots is in order. British officials must be careful to analyze the situation in a way where they are not attacking a vital tool for activism and a convenience for general communication.

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