A University of Manchester study has revealed that, far from being the tools of an ‘underclass’ bent on ‘criminality’ as the British government believed, social media was mostly a constructive force during the August riots.
In an emergency, out of season Parliament David Cameron and other MPs called for curbs on social media. “When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them,” he said. “So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and the industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Home secretary Theresa May met with industry figureheads including Facebook and Twitter. Again the question was about criminality. Just two weeks before the Home Office began considering “cyber-tagging” offenders and placing sanctions on users deemed dangerous, a spokesperson told TechEye that it was not “getting into the territory of banning people right now.”
Clearly that has changed. In fact, one glaring example of the government getting it wrong was when two people were sentenced to four years in jail for making bad jokes during the riots on Facebook. Their appeals were rejected.
It’s apparent that the government either doesn’t understand, or is terrified of, social media.
The University of Manchester study said that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest it would be worth shutting down Twitter in times of crisis, and actually that it was to thank for the people cleaning up the streets in the following days. It looked at 2.4 million tweets and found “no evidence” to suggest it should be shut down.
Even if people were organising looting over the frankly silly medium of a public social network, Twitter would not be the culprit.
Speaking of the initial social media-bashing bandwagon post-riot, lead researcher Rob Procter from the University of Manchester tells TechEye it’s important to consider the context: “There were a lot of things said rather precipitously at that time about social media and whether it had a role in inciting and organising the riots. Of course, one must look at these remarks in the context of commentators’ political agendas.
“One thing which might be of interest to explain away is the scale of what happened. It might suit some politicians to blame social media for inciting people to do things, as if without that they wouldn’t have reason or interest in taking part, that somehow they were provoked into doing something they might not have otherwise wished to be involved in.”
Procter says social media can’t become the scapegoat certain quarters want it to.
Both the riots and the enormous clean-up operation that followed were an example of the nature of mass communication and the internet, tools that are available to everyone in the country and largely for free. Like many things, these methods can be used constructively or they can be used destructively.
Procter agrees. He told us that, as a relatively new technology, there are a lot of people who don’t understand how to best make use of social media.
“We’re still learning how to use it and people can use it for different ends,” Procter says. “As with any technology, social media has no intrinsic alignment with societal goals. It can be used to further suitable and worthy social ends and also to further illegal activities, we see this with the web so it’d be surprising if that wasn’t also reflected in how social media is used.
“I think we have to understand it in that light,” he continues. “Anytime we consider whether we should be taking steps to curb the use of technology, we need to look at the balance – in terms of the benefits we observe against anything of a less acceptable nature. I suspect, with social media, we’ll come to the same conclusion as with, say, the internet.”
Regardless, social media appears terrifying to Parliament and governments worldwide. People are waking up to the power they have to move together and achieve a common goal as one – which sounds a bit like democracy. Just look at the violent crackdowns on the peaceful Occupy movement, worldwide or China sweating over messages the went viral on its own Jasmine revolution.
But Conservative politicians are still prodding to put the blame with social media.
Nick Herbert said in Parliament yesterday that it’s clear “social networking sites were used to co-ordinate some of the criminality in the disorder in August.”
Procter says, based on the team’s findings, Cameron’s knee-jerk ideas to close down networks are “clearly unwarranted”.
Now, Procter wonders if the politicians who came up with those thoughts in August would still stand by them, especially now that there’s been time for a more considered response.
A Guardian study recently revealed that most rioters cited antagonistic police, social frustration and poverty as the causes behind the riots rather than Sheer Criminality™.
And that is a let-down, Procter tells us: “I think what’s disappointing is the unwillingness to have a proper inquiry into the causes of the riots. There’s clearly questions to be answered but some politicians seem reluctant to confront them.
“One might draw their own conclusions from that.”