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Shutting down social media is the wrong approach

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:48 pm on 14 August, 2011.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking in response to the London riots, said:

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and 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.

Tory MP Louise Mensch proposes having a “kill switch” to temporarily switch off social media sites during riots. The Guardian reports:

Mensch, the MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and a novelist, used Twitter to call for a “brief temporary shutdown” of Twitter and Facebook to stop unfounded rumours being spread, as she said had occurred in Northamptonshire last week during the riots that spread from London to several cities across England.

It seems to me that such a measure would be counter productive, as well as being an attack on freedom of speech of those legitimately using social media when it gets shut off as proposed. There are several reasons for this:

  • By shutting down a communication service being used by suspected rioters, the police would be depriving themselves of valuable intelligence that could be used to preempt the rioters or subsequently to prosecute the rioters.
  • The social media also enable those trying to avoid the rioters and those concerned about each other to keep in touch, give each other advice, and reassure friends and relatives that they’re OK. Shutting down such services will hamper innocent people’s abilities to keep clear of the riots and increase pressure on more traditional services such as the phone system.
  • The likely response of those using social media to organise riots will simply be to choose other means such as email, text messages, phones, news groups, etc, thus making the approach ineffective unless you’re going to try shutting down communications in general, which would involve even more collateral damage in terms of people’s ability to avoid or counter the rioters, or otherwise carry on with their lives. Also it’s not as if it’s beyond the wit of people to organise riots via coded messages or even without using social media at all.
  • The existence of such a power would be a serious temptation for an unscrupulous government to abuse in order to distrupt attempts to organise peaceful protests or other peaceful means of political opposition to its policies.

It would be far better for the police and security services to have the capability to monitor the social media during a riot in order to keep one step ahead of the rioters and figure out who they are and where they’re going. There are civil liberties aspects to this too, but so long as the powers were kept specifically for riots, this would seem less open to abuse than the “kill switch”.

Finally, it seems to me that the use of social media by rioters is unlikely to have been crucial to the temporary loss of control of the streets in the first place. That was more down to failures of police tactics in the early stages of the riots, failures which were soon corrected.

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