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The recent riots in the United Kingdom have shown the dark side of social media. But we must avoid heavy restrictions on their use.
Earlier this month, officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system in San Francisco, United States, cut off access to mobile phones across its network in a bid to stop people gathering to protest again against the actions of the city’s police force. In July, a protest about a fatal shooting by the police had escalated, which prompted officials to try and stamp out a repeat.
The move received criticism from an unusual source. Those who had been involved in demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square this year pointed to uncomfortable parallels with attempts by the country’s then president, Hosni Mubarak, to block media channels that enabled people to organise the protest.
There was an element of hypocrisy, they pointed out, in US authorities taking similar steps to those they had condemned in Egypt as stifling freedom of speech.
Similarly, there was a self-righteous reaction from China to the announcement that British prime minister, David Cameron, was considering giving the police powers to block access to social networks following the widespread use of social media during last week’s riots in London and other cities in the United Kingdom.
The official Xinhua news agency reported that even the UK government had recognised "that a balance needs to be struck between freedom and the monitoring of social media tools".
Both situations illustrate how, in developed and developing countries alike, modern communications technology has the power to rapidly catalyse grassroots action in a way that can be seen as a threat to social order.
But governments must not blame, and therefore limit, the technology. Rather, an appropriate response lies in the more challenging task of promoting responsible use of the technology. While there is a risk it will be misused, communications technology must continue to be available for the free circulation of information and the expression of democratic rights.
Empowering citizens, fostering democracy
The power of social media to promote democracy, in particular, should not be underestimated. It can help give a collective voice to those at the bottom of the political pyramid, who are often — though not always — poor and marginalised.
The Egyptian authorities have experienced this at first hand. The events of Tahrir Square had their origin in a protest campaign that started on Facebook last year, and which spread rapidly through a young, technically literate, but politically disenchanted generation.
Similarly in China, government officials are increasingly outflanked by the technical ingenuity of citizens previously disenfranchised through a lack of information about state actions.
A recent example is the crash of a high-speed train at Wenzhou, on 22 July, in which 40 people died. Government efforts — largely successful — to suppress discussion of the crash in the press and on television were undermined by the speed with which information about it has circulated through popular micro-blogging services such as Sina Weibo, which now has 140 million users.
Certainly in Egypt, social media have had a profound and welcome effect on the nature of political action. New technology has brought to life US ‘founding father’ Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."
A double-edged sword
But there is a darker side too, as the United Kingdom riots have shown. The same ‘crowd-sourcing’ technology that can rapidly create an amusing mass dance event can equally easily be used for less acceptable, and even illegal, purposes.
Among the more chilling messages circulating on London streets were those giving details of which shops were going to be broken into and at what times, with an open invitation to participate in looting, or which sites were targeted for attack (such as buildings constructed for next year’s Olympic Games).
There is also the risk of false information being circulated, deliberately or otherwise. Some of this may be harmless. But misleading information can have serious and damaging consequences, such as false rumours of a tsunami heading for Indonesia in March, which was linked with at least one fatal heart attack and numerous injuries in traffic accidents.
Instant, unrestricted access to information is therefore a mixed blessing. Like almost any new technology, social media can be used or misused. The political challenge is to design controls that discriminate effectively between the two.
Response must be balanced
There is no case for draconian action. Indeed, even controls that may appear relatively benign in one context can take on a broader significance when they are quoted as a precedent in another.
There is a danger, for example, that any attempt to limit the use of mobile phones in a relatively minor event (such as the BART protests in San Francisco), will be used by others to justify much more serious action. As one Egyptian blogger, Mostafa Hussein, has said, "it’s a slippery slope."
Journalists in particular have reason to be concerned. As the Wenzhou accident has shown, social media channels can provide a wealth of sources for investigative reporting through the breadth and speed of their reach.
And it is precisely at times when social tensions are high that accurate and timely reporting is most needed. Anything that impedes this should be opposed.
The correct response to the misuse of social media is not to restrict its application, but to ensure that its use remains within accepted legal boundaries, and that breaking these rules has an appropriate penalty.
Hasty overreaction, in particular where it seeks to target the technology rather than the way it is used, will only be counter-productive by generating a powerful backlash of distrust in authorities. And as China has learned, it is also likely to fail.