So, it turns out that David Cameron seems to think that the appropriate response to the UK riots is to call for the clampdown on social media. RIM, Facebook and Twitter are being hauled in like misbehaving children to see the principal because their services were used by rioters. I quote from this Guardian article that sums it up:
The prime minister told parliament on Thursday that Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (Rim), the maker of BlackBerry devices, should take more responsibility for content posted on their networks, warning the government would look to ban people from major social networks if they were suspected of inciting violence online.
It’s all fairly ridiculous.
First of all, blaming the social media platforms for the riots is like blaming Boeing for their planes being hijacked by terrorists – it’s ridiculous and reductive. The medium is not the message. Technology doesn’t cause riots – rioters cause riots.
Secondly, the precedent of cutting off communications in the face of popular unrest is one with a checkered and worrying history. Even in the relentless twenty-four hour news cycle, the events which took place in Egypt are surely not so long ago that people have forgotten what happened. Suggesting draconian measures in the same vein seems like obtuse tone-deafness on Cameron’s part.
At the same time, curbing the use of social media tools during emergencies is a bad idea because such tools are also increasingly used by citizens to get in touch with each other, offer aid and organise community clean-up efforts. Unless you want to go through everything that’s posted on Twitter (for example) and pick out criminal usage. Shades of 1984 aside, that’s also a ridiculous amount of work to do and the resources would probably be better spent, you know, catching actual rioters and looters on the ground.
The whole thing has come off as one big knee-jerk response. You get reports on the use of Blackberries in the UK riots, and bam, one day later their Prime Minister wants a blanket clampdown on social media platforms. After all, this is a guy who is used to having major media institutions in his pocket. He probably thinks he can handle it the same way as traditional media is often handled by governments – with brute force and blackouts.
Unfortunately, social media doesn’t work anything like traditional media does, and I think a lot of governments & official institutions around the world – not just in the UK – still haven’t managed to wrap their mind around that. I could probably do an entire series of posts just on politicians trying to show that they are onboard with this social media thing, but sadly ending up so far off the mark that the result is that they look even more un-savvy than before.
Not that I blame them. Crowd-driven media has developed at a dizzying pace, and for people more used to making five-year plans, ten-year plans, playing catch-up is proving hard. What was Facebook five years ago? Twitter, three years ago? The first iPhone only debuted in 2007. It’s hard to come up with a strategy to cope with something that changes that fast. It’s clearly something that’s not going away anytime soon, though, so the next few years will be fairly interesting as the technology and user uptake continues to mature.
Let’s just hope that it doesn’t turn into an Orwellian nightmare.
(Top image: “Burning Car”by Flickr user NightFall404)