UK Officials Discuss the Role of Social Media in London Riots

In Social Media by Marius Badenhorst

During 2011, the world experienced first-hand just how big a role social media can play in influencing the future of a nation – we witnessed this in the Egyptian revolution and later in the Libyan civil war. Considering most of us will see nothing more rebellious on our social media profiles than the odd Facebook photobomb or passive-aggressive tweet (I’m looking at you, former high school classmates), the revelation may have come as quite a shock; it’s strange to think the platform that made nationwide civil resistance possible is the same platform that brought us Farmville and other insipid online pastimes. Still, the evidence is impossible to ignore, and while some may find it inspiring, the potential of social media to be a revolutionary tool has made plenty of authorities decidedly uneasy.

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Following the recent London riots, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Coalition Government would take steps to restrict social media usage during times of unrest, in order to prevent troublemakers from inciting violent activity online. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry instant messaging were blamed for helping rioters to organise protests and looting operations. This raised concerns among human rights groups, who said that although Cameron’s proposal was made in good faith, measures to monitor, limit or even shut down certain social media sites would “overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse”.

Last Thursday, Home Secretary Theresa May met with social network executives and police officials to discuss how the organisation of criminal activity on these sites could be prevented. However, the Government decided not to seek and additional powers to close down or restrict the networks. Cameron’s deputy Nick Clegg told press that UK ministers were not prepared to support “a Chinese- or Iran-style blackout of social media”.

The climb-down has naturally sparked a nationwide discussion about the merits of social media vs the obvious potential for exploitation of the technology. Meanwhile it has been reported that Thursday’s meeting was highly constructive, examining “how law enforcement and the networks can build on existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour”.

So far, at least five people have been convicted, and two have received prison sentences, for organising disorderly and violent acts via Facebook. We’ll be watching with interest to see how the Government and network executives plan to prevent criminal activity on social networks without an impact on the freedom of ordinary law-abiding users.

About the Author

Marius Badenhorst