Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”
That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?
The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.
Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.
No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.
I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.