There have been various worrying responses from politicians and the public in the wake of the recent riots in a number of England’s cities from the rift developing between an aloof cabinet and the police on the ground, to the e-petition to remove those few benefits that keep the poorest attached to our society by an already bare thread if they were in any way involved, to the collective punishment of evicting families due to one of their members involved in the incidents. But most worrying is the constraints proposed by those in power to be able to turn off social media to block the connectivity from both those rioting and those spreading misinformation and panic.
Social media provides a way to disseminate information more quickly and to more sectors of the public quicker than any medium previously designed, and is therefore part of the press. We condemn the regimes in North Korea, Libya, China and others for censoring the web, but when faced with a serious groundswell of unrest, Cameron and his cabinet have moved swiftly to propose censorship as a way to control the situation. It appears those being forced to come home from their holidays in a rush have neglected to actually do any research into social media before making knee-jerk reactions that could have easily been op-eds in the Daily Mail.
Whilst it is certainly true that Blackberry BBM and more traditional text messages were used to broadcast targets for riots and looting, and Twitter was as much a source of panic, scaremongering, and exaggeration as real information on the ground – but is that a reason to have some form of panic switch that blocks them all completely? Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak was fined $20 million for hitting the kill-switch on Egypt’s internet during the uprising that saw him ejected from power – is turning off social media not an action of similar proportions? The country would gasp at the idea of the government having a kill switch for radio and tv transmissions, and being able to put a block on the printing presses – why is this different?
It is different because the “publishers” on social media are not those with close links to the powerful – the Murdoch’s of this world. They do not have the financial and access incentives that keep most of the mainstream press reporting from similar hymn sheets, and they are not bound by the laws that govern our broadcast media. Neither do they have the team of researches doing the error checking, but since when has false reporting been a reason to censor the media – few would argue that the tabloids such as The Sun, The Mirror, or The Daily Sport have not fabricated stories in the past.
Cameron didn’t propose blocking BBM when it was likely used by the bankers responsible for much of the current financial crisis, or blocking email and telephone networks when those MPs accused and even convicted of fiddling their expenses would likely have made use of such technologies in stealing from the public purse. No, the censorship is being proposed now because it is clear that these technologies are being used by those that are not part of any “big society”. Politicians have not feared the press and communication of the masses since the advent of leaflet printing, and social media services like Twitter, Facebook, BBM, Google+, and others are the modern equivalent – cheap and easy methods to get your message out.
I have stated previously how our security services should be able to keep a better watch on the social media services, and they will in time get to grips with them just as they have every other medium in the past. Social media is used by those doing evil, by those doing good, and by all the shades of grey in between just like every other form of communication technology – to close it down is a massive overreaction by those in power who have shown themselves to be oh so very out of touch over the last week.