The recent riots in the UK sparked a great deal of soul-searching – including about the use of social media. Many reports noted, with some alarm, that the rioters were using social networks and smart phones (notably RIM’s Messenger service) to plan and execute their dirty deeds. As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering, among a range of remedial steps, to censor or block future communication on these same networks.
This reaction, though understandable, is rash and misguided. For one thing, it fails to consider that social media was also used by citizens to organize clean-up efforts and counter-demonstrations in support of order and civility. Video reports gathered by police and observers also greatly facilitated the identification of the rioters and spurred thousands of arrests. But most importantly, this focus on technology is a losing game, since those with initiative and evil intent (rioters, hackers and the like) will quickly find another channel or tool to plan their activities.
This scenario of social media as both spark and balm during civil unrest is being repeated on a regular basis. A few months ago the city of Vancouver was shocked and disgusted by urban violence and looting during the Stanley Cup finals – some of which was coordinated and fueled by social media. But again citizens of Vancouver used the same technology to plan a massive clean-up effort and to open a widespread public dialogue on the identity and values of the community. In a different context, we’ve seen how social media helped those involved in the so-called Spring Uprising in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. More recently, transit officials in San Francisco arbitrarily cut-off underground cellphone service for several hours to – in their words – prevent a disruptive protest by citizens upset by a recent shooting.
It’s clear that social media technology provides unprecedented benefits – allowing for instant, fluid communication with global reach. And it’s equally clear that this same technology can be used for evil purposes – whether it be pedophiles trolling on Facebook or anarchists using networking platforms to engage and direct supporters. The way to address these abuses is not to ban or censor the channels, but to develop relevant rules of engagement – and laws – that are designed specifically to prevent such abuses. If an individual breaks the rules or uses the networks for criminal activities, then he/she should be punished and/or banned. The response should be targeted and specific, and based on activity rather than speculation. The alternative is blunt, arbitrary shutdowns that punish many for the abuses of the few. As suggested by Jeff Jarvis in this commentary, any social media ban – even if targeted against convicted rioters – sets a dangerous precedent and raises questions about who decides what to censor. This is a valid and important debate, but it requires a balanced, measured approach that acknowledges the positive impact of social media – even in the worst situations of rioting or war.