Blog Post

Social Media’s Mob: Disconnected From Riots’ Reality?

The moment David Cameron uttered those troublesome words, “social media”, during Thursday’s emergency Commons debate on England’s riots, it was clear that the mob of social media aficionados would revolt.

Even before the Prime Minister had finished his speech, in which he said the government would meet social network executives and is minded to give police powers to temporarily block access for suspected criminals, the mob had started throwing stones. Emma Barnett hurled “stupid” at Cameron; Jeff Jarvis, who has lately been shouting “Fuck You” at Washington, intellectualised his riposte, telling Cameron in mock parliamentary intonation: “It would be wrong, sir.”

Thereafter piled the inevitable thousands of outraged complaints – tweets from users of Twitter, angered by the prospect their Twitter may be bitten.

All of this voices legitimate concern about freedom of speech, of course. But I also smell myopic, middle-class selfishness.

Of all the thousands who used Twitter to protest that Twitter can mobilise positive events, like community street clean-ups, as well as negative, like looting, it’s likely only a tiny minority mucked in with a broom and rubber gloves this week.

Instead, to the vast majority of us, this is an ideological pursuit, and one that’s chronically ABC1. So addicted are we to our electronic social connections, we simply cannot bare to be parted, even for an hour or two in the name of public safety while London burns.

To me, it points to the same growing disconnect in society that was finally made clear on the streets this week. While we privileged, techno-libertarian social media zombies brandish our electronic junkie habit as a pseudo-intellectual human right to which we are entitled by means of our expensive smartphones, tablets and laptops, many in inner cities look on enviously – and turn our technologies against us.

To test the theory, I conducted a little experiment, posting a poll in which I asked whether Twitter users would rather Twitter be kept open so they could chat about The X Factor, or rather it be closed for a couple of hours so that fellow citizens like shopkeepers need not be assaulted, have their property and premises pilfered and trashed, and so that they need not live in fear. A hundred percent of 10 respondents voted for X Factor.

Of course, this was in no way a scientific exercise (I was trying to make a point), but I expect the results would be largely replicated at scale. It suggests a worrying lack of societal empathy or mutual care – the very thing which some have argued Twitter actually enables.

Cameron’s sketchy remarks may be “wrong”, they may be “right” – but they are likely merely the kernel of an idea, pointing only in the general direction of addressing a challenge police have observed to their ability to keep the streets under control.

Technologists’ early apparent opposition to any controls at any cost is a sad mirror of the comfortable myopia our widening societal groups increasingly adopt, as our electronic connections allow us each to act within our own self-reinforcing bubbles. And, whilst free speech should undoubtedly be a balancing factor in this policymaking, this myopia undermines the prime directive of any government – keeping its people safe from harm.

Some folk appear to suggest the fact of a Twitter-mobilised street clean-up somehow cancels out the fact of lost livelihoods and lost lives from the night before. To those affected, it does not – prevention is better than cure.

Technology may indeed be neutral. But, whilst it would seem unfair to punish those of us who use it appropriately, does that mean authorities should elect not to act against those who abuse that neutrality in the name of criminality? As ugly as the prospect of censorship may seem, many of us are sorely lacking empathy toward both the victims and the government’s predicament.

My liberalism has been tested this week by over-rationalisation of the looters’ actions. As many generational factors as there may be for the societal position they find themselves in (and, yes, it’s here where policymaking has failed them), there is little excuse for mass trashing and violence…

It is now the liberals in my own circle, and especially some of social media’s biggest champions – whom I look toward to show all the kinds of understanding that are necessary in the name of a truly connected society.

9 Responses to “Social Media’s Mob: Disconnected From Riots’ Reality?”

  1. To me, the argument to block access to Twitter in times of
    emergency or suspected crime misses one rather crucial point and that is that
    it would not solve anytihng or make one blind bit of difference.  People
    currently use Twitter because it is there and because it is a good tool for the
    job.  If Twitter was not there it wouldn’t take long for Son of Twitter to
    emerge, and the millions of users would flock to it.  Similarly its not a
    simple task to block access as the available technology makes it a relatively
    simple job to bounce your IP off of a few different countries to walk in
    through a back door.  The alternative would be for Mr Cameron to ask the
    entire word population of Twitter to be patient whilst he deals with whatever
    case of a lost cat he deems worthy in order to ask Silicon Valley to take down
    the entire network.  Whilst I do not know the senior executives of Twitter
    I think I can imagine what their response would be.  Social media isn’t
    the enemy here, it is a means of communication that is available and therefore
    is used for whatever reason the audience chooses.  It’s much better for
    the authorities to actually use the system in order to stay informed of
    potential bad situations and criminal activity.  That way they might
    actually acquire some intelligence on which to act (and I mean this in every
    sense of the word).  I rrun one of the companies that have developed tools that would enable them to do this and I am sure I am not alone in this.

  2. Can this discussion be taken seriously?  Restrictions of freedoms in the name of freedom?  Banning information – bad or good is nothing short of tyranny!  I am from the despicable place called America but still ladies and gents – who are you fooling except yourselves.  The article is a farce and so is a discussion to the merit less political diatribe of “for the good”.  The government wouldn’t know what is good if it hit them in the face.  They are bought, paid for and servants to corporate greed lacking moral character that once was the stable of British thought and influence (America is no different – no casting stones here without knowing the truth).   A world order dominated by the few and wealthy is either a rebellion or sheep going to the slaughter.  I would prefer the pen to the sword.  And free speech above all – even if I find it distasteful.

  3. The problem with switching social media and other web comms off is that would cede “the news” to the mainstream media. I don’t know about you but (like CH above) I don’t use it. It’s slow, unreliable and has a narrow corporate worldview. What I want when everything goes mental is access to police, journalist and reliable blogger tweets.

    Your suggestion that social media would be used to discuss the X-Factor while cities burn is something that is beyond my comprehension. Were you online during the riots?

    The simple point is that society outnumbers the looters and arsonists. If you leave social media tools in place you favour society. If you remove them you favour the “rioters”. There are many examples of rioting prior to 1995.

  4. Some very good points – it is very easy to be righteous when you sit on your laptop or your smartphone instead of being faced with dangers in the street.

    What I argue though is that by using social media to report the movements of the rioters and warning people who are not on Twitter I am sure a few people were spared more destruction. This is what you are missing in the argument. I called around to friends and families to get home, lock the door and maybe get the car into the garage. I was out there and cleaned up, too, before this comes up again. We had journalists on the street tweeting about movements and happenings and everyone could read what they are doing – not having to wait for the next ad break on Sky and then hearing them on a noisy phone.

    I find that you try to make a good point here but you fall into the same trap as the people trying to protect the Twitter of X-Factor in the name of free speech: there is a lack of nuance. Yes, people have a holier-than-thou attitude, but this is not everybody. Fact is that if the government used social media as more than a news channel to post press releases to, we wouldn’t even have this discussion.

    As I pointed out in my braindump this morning ( the big failure is to not see the opportunity we have here to establish social media as a way to fight and prevent crime. Had this been 10 years ago, we’d have to wait for printouts at post offices and train stations and in the newspapers to identify looters (I remember this with terrorism in the 80ies) – now the Police uses Flickr to post the images and Twitter to ask people to check them out and every person getting this is a way to reach more people.

    I thank you for giving a reality check, but I also think you are too harsh towards people who use Twitter as a communication platform and news resources and not to follow X-Factor. I threw my TV away 10 years ago and I haven’t missed it. It is time we realise that speed is a factor of a good medium.

  5. I just did up a poll in my own head. I asked the following question - 

    Which would you rather

    *A nationwide curfew, keeping everyone in doors from the hours of six in the evening to six in the morning without any communication with the outside world so that shopkeepers don’t have to be beaten nor clean up thousands of pounds of criminal damage or suffer lost stock or have people murdered

    *Be free to chat with your friends, family and neighbours about x-factor 

    In my head a hundred percent of the people picked b. 

    Of course, this was in no way a scientific exercise (I was trying to make a point), but I expect the results would be largely replicated at scale with real people. It suggests a worrying lack of societal empathy or mutual care. 

    Or wait a second…maybe what it really suggest is that I have an opinion I want to express and want to try an bolster it with some biased lousy poll I made up. 

    Yes, given the option free thinking people for some reason choose civil liberties over totalitarianism, even if that means people are free to read and comment on online articles like this, which are a complete waste of everyone’s time. Blaming a medium for communication for riots is as absurd, IMO, as saying there were no riots before twitter came along. Prevention requires far deeper thought and understanding of the causes than this article has shown. 

  6. what a BS article… so you do a poll to which 10 ppl reply and you extrapolate it to the whole twitter universe?! Besides the fact that the questions on the poll are badly formulated and biased, the extrapolation of such a small sample to the entire twitter universe is just laughable. If you want I can give you a few lessons on statistics… I think you would benefit from them!
    But besides this point… can you not see the dangers on what Cameron is trying to do? Are you so “myopic” that you cannot see the incredible slipery path towards Totalitarianism that those proposals represent? Maybe you should also study a bit more History at the same time you are reviewing statistics!

    • @twitter-6262792:disqus So you do a poll to which 10 ppl reply and you extrapolate it to the whole twitter universe?! “No. I acknowledged the purpose of the poll in par 8.

      @twitter-241520591:disqus “It would be healthy for our political class to assess the true nature of these events more honestly and humbly before they hazard a solution and ask more searchingly why the response of our society’s losers should be alcohol and theft.”

      Agreed. Obviously, the behaviour we have seen has a societal cause, one that can’t be divorced from an examination in policy context. But Cameron was, on this occasion, looking at tings through the immediate law-and-order lens – something that he probably thinks shouldn’t be overlooked versus any policy changes, which would take generations to take effect and he likely won’t enact anyway, if financial cuts handed to community organisations are anything to by.

      @Pepetideo:disqus “But besides this point… can you not see the dangers on what Cameron is trying to do? ”

      The dangers are self-evident. I acknowledge them. But what’s not evident, in the outrage at the idea Cameron raised, is any kind of examination as to its merits before forming a conclusion.

      I suspect each of us arrives at a related conclusion, but I’m happy to have helped crystallise the arguments. along the way.

      • No you did not acknowledged the purpose of the poll… you used it to provide validity to your own preconceived ideas… 

        Social media is the online extention of our real social life… just has we should be outraged if the governent tried to restrict our freedom of movement and association so should you be outraged when those freedoms are under attack on your online activities…

        You are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty … why should it be different online?

        I am sorry if I am being harsh on your article but I believe you really did a bad job on this one! 

  7. As I see it our politicians are as always far too quick to blame every “social network” but their own.

    The worst public disturbances in recent memory have barely subsided. It would be healthy for our political class to assess the true nature of these events more honestly and humbly before they hazard a solution and ask more searchingly why the response of our society’s losers should be alcohol and theft. They might discover that the steady diet of infantilising welfare, social greed and liberalist economics both main parties have been feeding the electorate is not such a healthy one after all.

    The last time these supine MPs stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” they settled on yet another mindless bombing campaign they now regret. What would you have them do now? A social networks “Tzar”?

    To my view, Cameron’s response was in character: quick, glib and wrong.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond — the rest of the rant is at home on my blog