Thursday, 25 August 2011

Hands off Twitter - Switching off Social Networks is a non-Starter - london riots

Hands off Twitter - Switching off Social Networks is a non-Starter
Posted: 25/8/11 15:39 GMT Gordon MacMillan. Social media editor, Brand Republic

As executives from Facebook, Twitter Blackberry manufacturer, Research in Motion, meet today with Home Secretary Theresa May to discuss the riots in England can we be clear here and say loudly that the idea of switching off social networks in the event of riots or social unrest is ridiculous and a non-starter. It should not be entertained in anyway shape or form. Could you imagine the government also suggesting a media blackout? The comparison is not that far fetched.

Rightly the move is opposed by the social networking businesses themselves and by human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Index on Censorship, which have also written to the home secretary expressing concerns about any potential clampdown on social networks.
It shows more than anything that David Cameron's government having been initially slow to respond as the riots started, flailing around for a national response, is out of touch.
Who seriously believes that Twitter and Facebook played any serious role in contributing to the riots? Hands up now.
Anyone who spent any time on either social network would be aware that while there was much discussing of the riots there appeared to be little more than idiots posturing and bragging from the sidelines when it came to the actual activity. Blackberry with its private messenger service probably has more of a case to answer.
I wrote before about how David Cameron was wrong to talk about stopping people using social media in circumstances such as the riots. He is still wrong now.
Cameron and May should listen and talk to some of those who were using social media like the police forces in Manchester and Sussex who praised social media as a force for the good. Talk to them rather than criticise from the sidelines.
Talk to the people also who used Twitter to share news and updates, to warn people that some areas were becoming unsafe, and then talk to the people who got together as a community to organise the great riot clean-up activity. Most importantly talk, and keep lines of communications open, rather than shutting things down.
That would be more constructive than making noises about banning social networks and following the lead set by the Sun and the Daily Mail, which for the sake of good headlines blamed social networks for fuelling London's riots.
The Mail was first to criticise the police for their response to the riots and then to take aim at social networks and Cameron, speaking to middle England, followed suit. Not quite leadership, more following. Apt for social media.
While it is in the best interests of social networks to quickly remove content that incites violence or other kind of unacceptable activity, such as racism, other than that I am not sure what more they can do.
You can talk about banning people who commit such activity, but Facebook has never showed itself open to doing that and it is obviously very easy to set up new accounts.
Its disappointing to be in the UK in 2011 and to hear talk about banning social networks. You can no more ban them than you can ban the media. Who would ever suggest such an idea. It would, of course, be the worse kind of censorship straight out of Uncle Joe's Soviet media playbook. The Daily Mail would literally wet its bloomers with outrage.
But if you looked at the coverage you could easily argue that the national media did as much to encourage the riots as social media. The Daily Mail and other papers revelled in posting riot images. The images were like those we are now so used to see from the front lines of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq only the uniforms were different.
It was riot porn that turned the pictures of those young male rioters into iconic poster boy images: brands, flames and bandanna's. They were the rock stars of a week of unrest.
Sure close Blackberry Messenger for a week, but hands off Twitter and Facebook. Rightly Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry are refusing to restrict their systems and the government should not push it any further. The idea has already run out of road.
Follow Gordon MacMillan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gordonmacmillan

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