Social media, especially sites like Twitter have been heavily criticized for the role they played in the England riots of early August, 2011. They have been criticized for the same reason they have been praised for their role in the Arab Revolutions: They allow information to spread quickly.
Already British Conservative leader David Cameron is suggesting limiting free speech. Cameron said, “everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck [sic] by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them”.
Notice how he says “we need to stop them” he really means temporary shutdowns of certain forms of communication. Freedom of speech is always one of the first civil liberties to be limited during times of panic and chaos. Free speech and free flow of information is not something we should be willing to sacrifice.
There are two funadamental problems with the approach that suggests censorship helps to impose order.
The first, superficial, problem is that blocking a specific website or communication application doesn’t end the communication. The internet, technology and those who use it adapt infinitely more quickly than public policy. Even the most sophistiacted and dedicated authoritarian governments struggle unsuccessfully to limite communication and information.
The second, more fundamental, problem is that limiting the rights to free speech of an entire nation to silence a few can never be right. During the English riots lawbreakers may have been using social media or mobile phones to communicate. Some may have spread information. But the moral and commendable uses of social media were abundant.
For example, a good friend of mine Lee (@leestanleybhm) used Twitter to provide reliable, first-hand, up-to-date information on the situation in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In his words, “Firm believer in the power of social networking. Mass media cannot cover everything. […] the best way to be safe is to be informed. If you’ve not have trouble where you are I envy you”.
He’s absolutely right. The availability of up-to-date first hand information from people and locations across the country is an invaluable resource during troubled times. The ability to know the people you care about are safe is a freedom that should never be limited. Some of Lee’s information was later published on the Guardian website here . But, his followers had access to information immediately – when it could be of most use.
Some have suggested social media allowed criminals to coordinate, and misinformation spreads panic. At the same time, a government cutting off instantaneous lines of communication between the public during a time of crises would cause even more serious panic, uncertainty and confusion. Isolating and cutting off an entire nation from communication is an unacceptable price to pay – especially during a crisis.
Any medium of communication is neither good nor evil. Each person chooses how to use it. Shutting down communication networks scorns those who rely on it for legitimate, ethical and democratic uses. Government censorship of communication cannot be acceptable and does nothing to address the real problems or situations. This censorship proposal by David Cameron will fail. But, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding and lack of judgement about the role of infomation and communication in our society.
BBC. (August 11, 2011). England riots: Government mulls social media controls.
BBC. Peter Jackson. (August 11, 2011). England riots: Dangers behind false rumours
Guardian. (August 10, 2011). UK riots coverage – Wednesday 10 Agust 2011.
Number 10. (August 11, 2011). PM statement on disorder in England.