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.

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