A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

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.

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2 thoughts on “A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

  1. Nice responsive post to an absolutely ridiculous conversation between a bunch of people have non to minimal concept of using digital media effectively.

    Anyone under 25 has grown up with mass always on communication as part of their lives. To try and manipulate the situation by shutting down the communication services of an otherwise liberal democracy is absurd. It also fails to recognise the many number of people who use such services to make their living.

    Politicians need to get off the media hype topics and deal with the reality of our community issues

  2. Well put. They need to stop worrying about twitter and BBM and start worrying about why people rioted in the first place – riots have been around for longer than Blackberrys!

    Can you imagine if they suggested shutting down other forms of communication, telephone or text messaging for example, it would cause an outrage. The only reason BBM and Twitter are acceptable is because it’s mainly the young that use it.

    They will surely realise that this is a line they can’t cross.

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