At 6.30 pm this-evening, there will be a debate about David Cameron’s plan to turn off all social media sites during times of riot. Yes, this measure may prevent people conspiring and communicating; arranging meeting places, and drumming up hysteria, which is a very important factor, but there are two very big reasons that I personally think social media should stay open for business at all times.
After the event, there can surely be few more effective ways of catching hold of the perpetrators of crimes than having cold, hard evidence published on the internet. A tweet saying; ‘Let’s meet at 4.00pm and throw a firework through Topshop’s window’, or a photograph on Facebook of a grinning hoodie, proudly brandishing his new trainers for all to see, and the inevitable boastful comments that would accompany it, would undoubtedly be invaluable in securing enough evidence for conviction. During the riots of the last few days, I heard Caitlin Moran describe this very idea as ‘Giving them enough rope to hang themselves’.
We will never compete with their vanity and short-sightedness, and all we need do is sit back and allow them to incriminate themselves.
2. POSITIVE COMMUNICATION
Only those people who relied on Twitter throughout the riots this week will appreciate the inadequacies and shortcomings of the televised news services. While Sky News and the BBC were playing down events, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, and then when they eventually had to acknowledge it, showing hours-old footage, repeating the same limited cannon of clips, and creating a very limited perspective for viewers relying solely on television, some of us were on Twitter. One only had to click on the hashtag #londonriots, and you were immediately inside the action. People were tweeting from the streets, in the middle of what was going on, people were tweeting about what was going to happen before it did, so that the news spread across the internet, able to forewarn, and preclude. Photographs were coming from journalists, live onto the Twitter newsfeed, reliable sources were sharing the experience with the world, ordinary people were able to ask for help, express their fear, and sadness, and unite. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that on Twitter for those few nights the wartime spirit of the 1940’s was very much alive. Matters were discussed, shared, and wholly illuminated and verified without bias. There was no agenda to the information, and the sources provided photographs. On the first night, before I’d even heard anything about it on the news, I lay in bed, glued to my Blackberry, until five in the morning, and I felt so immersed in the action, so much part of the London unity, that my own life and surroundings felt distant, and surreal.
I can never fully express just how important those few nights of shared communication were, to the people who needed help, and to feel part of a community. To the people who were inside their homes, terrified, but comforted by the entire world, talking to them on Twitter, or those of us who were far away from London, and wanted to feel in-the-loop. No amount of televised news coverage could have competed with the information shared on Twitter during the riots, and even in organising the clean-up process. I hope the politicians make this a consideration in their decision.
Yes, people may have used the social media to organise, but an equal number of people were warned about where the violence was spreading, and were able to move away from the area, or pre-empt it. I think, in this case, more good would be lost, by losing that valuable facility for communication, than harm prevented by stopping the conspirational organising.