London Riots Spark Social Media Concerns

by Emily Packard on 08/16/2011

Is social media the root of all evil (or at least rioting)?

British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to think that Twitter and Facebook deserve a large part of the blame for recent rioting in London. He claims that the social media giants made citizen organization during the fracas fairly easy.

Restricting social media due to civil unrest would have been an interesting, albeit extremely disappointing, move on the part of the British government, seeing as how England is widely considered one of the freest countries in the world. Taking away the right to self expression through Twitter and Facebook would go against Freedom House’s quite favorable view of the country in its most recent “Freedom of the Press” survey, which ranked the United Kingdom as quite open in terms of press freedom.

Cameron is quoted in a statement to the British House of Commons as saying “And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.” Was social media usage a cause of the riots. or just a symptom of the cause? It looks like more of a symptom, wherein responsibility for proper and safe social media usage should lie with the individual, and not an arm of the government.

Reporters Without Borders, an organization designed to defend press freedom, recently expressed concern with cooperation between Research in Motion, manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, and British police last week. Their concern differed from Cameron’s in that they were worried that social media networks would be targeted by authorities looking to identify rioters.

It would not be prudent of the English government, or any government for that matter, to restrict social media usage in response to events like the London riots. Social media may be a useful tool in tracking down offenders, but organizations must remain active in protecting the privacy of users.

Questions about blocking social media are not new. Leaders of countries around the world, including China and Iran, have implemented measures to restrict outlets like Facebook and Twitter. In 2010, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez suggested that governments create their own rules and restrictions for social media, suggesting that such measures are necessary because Twitter is a “tool of terror.”


Social Media Reaction

Perhaps Prime Minister Cameron should take a look at the positive actions generated by Twitter following the London riots before condemning social media as an organizational tool. Twitter users have been utilizing the hashtag #riotcleanup to connect concerned citizens who want to help London move forward. Volunteers throughout Tottenham and other areas assembled together, many armed with rubber gloves and brooms, to clean up the mess left behind by looters. A Facebook group with a similar name keeps users up-to-date on how they can help riot victims.

This is not the first case of social media being used for a worthy cause. Oklahomans affected by recent tornadoes received an overwhelming response from Facebook users in their rebuilding efforts. Twitter also helped Japanese citizens reconnect with their families after the March earthquake, and people around the world were able to find an easy way to donate funds for relief efforts.

Just as Prime Minister Cameron thinks social media can be used for destruction, it can also be used for positive social change. Before placing the blame for events such as the London riots on spurious causes, government officials should look at the redeeming organizational and community-oriented qualities of Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Source: Eduardo Carrasco