/ Technology

#Riots – would you support a social network blackout?

Should social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, suffer blackouts to stem the spread of civil unrest? A recent survey suggests that, following the riots, the idea is more popular than you might have thought.

As riots spread across London and other major UK cities earlier this year, fingers were firmly pointed at Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry messaging for having a hand in their escalation.

At the time, Which? Tech’s Andy Vandervell argued that we should steer clear from over hyping the role of social networks. They’re a powerful way to amplify any message, but they weren’t the reason the riots started, he reasoned. But although that might be true, perhaps they accelerated the speed with which they spread, as Richard commented:

‘The difference between staging riots and revolutions before the era of electronic communications is simply the speed of reaction. It was shown that it takes around an hour to react to electronic communication. Before it would take weeks or months to pass the word.’

So, if switching off these services would help slow riots running out of control, could we justify this type of action?

The power of censorship

Nearly half of the respondents to a survey by security firm Unisys agreed completely that social networks and instant messaging services should be temporarily shut down to prevent coordinated criminal activity. Plus, when you include everyone who agreed with this statement, whether completely or just somewhat, you can increase that proportion to two-thirds.

Moreover, around three-quarters agreed that authorities should be able to access data about social network users if it would improve public safety.

I’m sure many would support the idea of giving governments access to social network data on individuals who have performed criminal acts, but would we want to hand over the power of actually shutting these services down?

Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship, a freedom of expression campaign group, is worried about the implications of letting the government do this:

‘It’s very worrying that people would believe shutting down social networks would be in any way desirable. These kinds of actions would weaken the UK’s position against authoritarian regimes who censor internet access. As we live more of our lives online, people should be conscious of the amount of power they’re potentially handing over to government.’

This isn’t the only measure that ministers are getting involved in either. A new law that may block gangs from posting YouTube videos that ‘incite violence’ is also being considered by ministers at the moment.

There’s good in social media

And what about the good that can be done through Twitter and other social networks? They can give a voice to those standing up against oppressive regimes, and they can also help coordinate more modest acts of good, such as the ones in the aftermath of the riots:

‘Social networks revealed genuinely heart-warming solidarity, combined with a wry British spirit – such as calls for “wombles” to help tidy up the aftermath – that were funny and useful to communities that had been bruised and burnt,’ commented Hannah.

At the end of the day, social networks are a communication tool, whether used for good or bad. So, would it be a good idea to let outsiders close down these services, even during civil unrest?


Word of mouth, the phone, television news don’t seem to get a mention.

I am beginning to think that I would not mind a news blackout from time to time, since much of it seems to be either self serving or promoting any view point the owners tell the journalists to. However communication between people in general should not be stopped.

It should not be possible to allow people to communicate only pleasant positive happy clappy messages that the authorities of the day agree with otherwise nothing would ever change. Oops sorry I forgot myself for a moment, only people without power need to cope with change being imposed upon them

Insanity – just like trying to censor the internet – The poll tax riots [ insert all other riots before 2005 here ] happened without social networks – don’t see how stopping someone tweeting will make a difference. If they claim it would make it harder to organise then in reality they would need to turn the whole internet off!!

Good point about TV above, add in newspapers, SMS messages and since all of those are gone free speech – after all, repulsive and upsetting as the riots were they were the people making a point – in the most primitive way possible – that they are not happy. The government should be listening and not trying to stop freedoms we have already.

Do they suggest we cut off everyone’s mobile then aswell?

Some years ago, when I was at school, I heard word of something illegal going on because my friend rang my parents house to tell me. No mobiles, no tweets etc, just a good old fashioned landline.

My point is that if something is going down that means people get stuff for free, the news spreads like wildfire, with or without twitter.

Remember that container tanker running aground fairly recently and everyone piling down there to grab some free stuff?

“Prevent coordinated criminal activity” by all means, but the article suggests to me that you’re saying all civil unrest is unjustified and basically wrong.
Not sure I agree that’s always the case. We were all behind most of the Arab unrest this year. They were fighting unjust rulers and laws. Now of course things are nothing like as bad as that in the UK but there are things that are wrong, and there are injustices even in the UK.
If our rulers take no notice of peaceful protest, as often seems the case, frustration will through human nature eventually lead to an escalation of protest.
The best way to prevent this is to address peoples fears and grievances in a fair and honest way.
I don’t think that always happens.
Agree or not with whatever the subject of any protest is shuting down communication and/or treating people in a heavy handed way is sure way of storing up problems for the future.

I wasn’t behind the Arab civil unrest as it is not my country and therefore I had no idea about what the real issues were, only what the media were spoon feeding us. Hence, ambivalence.

I can’t see remember any protest/march, peaceful or violent, that has achieved what it set out to do. Can you?

by the way, “raising awareness” is not a tangible objective

You said “I can’t see remember any protest/march, peaceful or violent, that has achieved what it set out to do. Can you?”
So, the right of free speech and democracy we all seem so proud of in the UK counts for little if anything? You seem to be saying all protest is pointless?
Well if that’s what you’re saying I think up to a point I’d agree with you.
And like I said before if peoples fears and grievances are not addressed in a fair and honest way, as I too feel is often the case, is it any wonder that frustration will through human nature eventually lead to an escalation of protest.

It almost seems that too often the approach is rather than really address the issue it’s a case of “I’m the Government and if you dare to disagree with anything I’ll eventually send in the riot police and knock you about a bit, or worse”
Somehow I don’t think that really resolves things on the longer term basis.

You said
“I can’t see remember any protest/march, peaceful or violent, that has achieved what it set out to do. Can you?”

Yes I can, the poll tax protests back in the 80’s.