With the birth of social media, people have become far more interconnected to each other and have become able to gain access to news and information with incredible rapidity. That new access has given groups unprecedented power to organize. Social networking tools have been mobilized in the United States to develop grassroots political action on a myriad of topics. It was what propelled Barack Obama to office, and it aided the swift rise and mobilization of the Tea Party.
A Dark Side to Social Media
Yet the use of social media is not confined to those who act within the rule of law. It can equally be used to organize and coordinate violent protest, or outright riot. Such was the case in Manchester, United Kingdom, in 2011, when Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger were all used to promote violent rioting in protest to police killing a young immigrant. While Twitter and Facebook were both used, the nature of the rioting meant that Blackberry messenger was more useful; it is much more private and, importantly for a potential rioter, not traceable back to the user’s phone. It could be used to rapidly bring groups ready for violence to particular areas so enabling rioters to outmaneuver the police.
The rioting led to calls for social media to be more tightly regulated and policed. The British prime minister, David Cameron, called for suspected rioters to be banned from social networks and demanded greater effort for the social media giants to remove content that incites violence. He also suggested the more radical proposal that if a riot was in progress the police should have the power to shut down a social network in a localized area to reduce the rioters’ ability to organize.
Some politicians and experts have proposed similar policies in other countries. The power of governments over the information grid gives them a frightening ability to shut down communication between individuals “in the public interest.” But can it ever be in the public interest to shut down communication between citizens on social media, even during times of social unrest?
Hurting Law-Abiding Citizens
The curtailment of access to social media communication represents a massive imposition on the rights of citizens. Their freedom of speech is curtailed, business is harmed, and the riots continue. Studies of the use of Twitter during the riots in London showed that during rioting it was mostly used to react to the riots to send warnings to avoid trouble rather than incite violence. Blocking access or cutting off communications would therefore mean putting at risk those people who otherwise would have been warned not to go near areas with rioting.
Furthermore, the blocking of social networks, of the internet, or of mobile phone networks in times of riot represents an illegitimate curtailment of a private company’s right to do business and serve its customers. Social networks are businesses and have many users. Even more important is the impact on everyone who is not associated with the rioting. When these actions are taken it harms everyone, perhaps even millions of people at a given time. Hurling citizens into darkness “for their protection” is a grossly irresponsible choice for governments to make.
The Right to Mobilize
The state may not be the best placed to gauge the legitimacy of social unrest. Oftentimes disturbances are the result of massive social pressures, like abuse of government power or social exclusion. When these issues are not properly addressed, or outright ignored by the government, they boil over. Positive things can come from such disturbances. They can put the issues on the table and bring them screaming into the public consciousness.
This is the difference between disturbances like the Arab Spring, which was generally considered legitimate, and the London riots that were not, apart from the initial peaceful protests the riots did not have an agenda to create change.
The government suppressing legitimate demonstrations, whether they do it with physical force or internet repression, ultimately serves only to push away the problem, to continue to ignore it. Blocking social networks therefore only seeks to muzzle the expression of outrage that is sometimes entirely justified. The media attention and organizing power of social networks serves to get people engaged, motivated, and visible. The government should not seek to stop that. They should seek to prevent protest and demonstration from spilling into violence. Blocking access to social networks will not aid in that endeavor.
A Dangerous Precedent
Governments almost always like to expand their powers over speech, particularly when that speech is damaging to the governments’ credibility. The freedom of speech is a critical right in all free societies precisely because it is the ultimate means ordinary citizens have to challenge the powers that be, to express dissent, and to organize with like-minded people dissatisfied with the way government is running.
The internet has been the most powerful and valuable tool in the expansion of individuals’ power over their governments. The state quakes at the raw people-power that services like Twitter provides. It is the last frontier largely free of the state’s power, and the state has sought to expand its influence.
By blocking Twitter and its ilk, the government would be able to get its first foothold in blocking free speech online. The power of that beachhead would serve to give it further credibility in censoring other services online in the public interest. It is much better that the government be kept entirely out of these services, than let them begin the slow creep of intervention that would be a serious threat to the freedom of individuals on the internet.