Facebook was the first to confirm its attendance at today’s meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss how social media contributed to the English riots.
Social media providers Twitter and Blackberry have also been scrutinised regarding the use of their services to coordinate violent behaviour; however, the evidence suggests that social media is in fact the key to preventing future civil unrest.
Ignorance is not bliss
Real-time information not only kept people informed of where the trouble was brewing and which places had already been targeted, but also provided much needed reassurance for friends and families.
David Cameron himself recognised that “a free flow of information can be used for good” and this was demonstrated by the spontaneous mass clean-ups organised overnight. Some police forces in the UK already use social media as a central source of intelligence when they suspect criminal activity, encouraging online discussions rather than seeking to disrupt them.
In light of the advantages of using social media, many believe that the government’s reactive proposition to disconnect these platforms in the event of future uprisings would aggravate those already harbouring negative attitudes. Chaos is more likely to escalate in a scenario where preferred sources of real-time news are unavailable.
An exception to the rule
This year has seen a number of instances in which social media has been at the core of controversial issues; from super-injunctions, to political revolutions, to the phone-hacking scandal.
As a result there is a greater demand for clarity surrounding professional use of social media given the attractions of using this platform to communicate. At what point is it acceptable for the law to intercept the uncensored content exchanged through social media?
Currently, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) permits the police access to personal BBM messages or other social media content if they originate from a UK network and it can be demonstrated that the information relates to criminal behaviour.
However, wider monitoring of conversations taking place on social media sites and the BBM service (a closed network) would require new laws and additional resource.
Communities should be encouraged to collaborate online while those in authority should immerse themselves in social media to maximise their visibility amongst local people. In this way, social media will enable dialogue between people who wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to interact; and social interaction is more beneficial than social censorship.