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?