26.8.11

the anti-social network

In the wake of the over publicised and much maligned riots that rippled across England earlier this month it appears that technology and mass social interaction over the internet is once again being put forth as a scapegoat and proving once again that without any actual communication with social media providers or their users the government is at high risk of losing its footing on the last of the slowly slipping common ground with the modern public.
Facebook, twitter and RIM (Canadian founders of the blackberry system) are being called upon as spokespeople for the millions of users on their networks, most notably consumers who are suspected of using the networks to incite and organise violence and looting during the disturbances.
I have my reservations regarding the violence which shocked the mainstream media earlier in the month; I have no grounding to discuss the very serious threats at hand in the capital, but, living in Nottingham, if the media overplay in London mirrored the apocalyptic doomsaying which was publicised here I imagine it wasn’t quite as bad as the associated press would have had us believe. Recently we have seen the country’s leaders come to light with staunch rhetoric and hard lines with which to leave in the sand over the riots and looting, all of which seemed aimed at the mystical spectre of ‘the voice of a disaffected youth’, of ‘broken Britain’ and a lack of social responsibility.
To offer a single opinion, there was sparse loquaciousness coming from the collective body of the rioters in London, less so still in the neighbouring cities. This riot was not about protest or civil rights, there may have been some reactions to the shooting of Mark Duggan but there was no call from the crowd to reduce to idea of ‘reasonable force’ within the police, more so, there is no such thing as sympathy looting with which to bring credence to your cause.

The government has proved on several occasions that they have little or no idea how to deal the younger generation of this country, kettling and dragging disabled students out of wheelchairs who are clearly frustrated by their leaders attempting to financially cripple them at the academic stage while blaming social networking sites for motive–free rioting. It has come to light that during the riots and looting the government had questioned the possibility of shutting down social networks in order to quell the spread of messages condoning or aiding the rioters. Obviously the legality of implementing such a scheme came under great scrutiny with regard to freedom of speech not to mention the effect it would have had on the rights of the wider, law abiding, social media users.

After assessing the trends and spread of data as it passed across the digital map of Britain it appeared that many of the social sites were actually a force for good during the situation. Police were able to track the movement of trouble as people used the sites to contact and warn family and friends, while the feedback of police information and mobilisation helped to keep the rioters in an ever tightening net. It became clear that most of the social networks continued to do what they are good at, conveying news as opposed to acting as a rallying cry. The only organisation done over twitter regarding the riots that was the aftermath clean-up operations which went a long way in showing that violence and destruction was not the choice of the majority voice in Britain and helped maintain one of the few remaining bastions of British tradition, our ability to survive and persevere after hardship.


As the fast track, show piece, trials of identified rioters began so too did the prosecution of those convicted with incitement through facebook. David Glyn Jones has been sentenced to four month along with six others receiving prison time for posting messages with provocation towards rioting, which shows striking similarities to the case of Paul Chambers who was arrested under the terrorism act following a flippant tweet in January regarding blowing up an airport.  
While police are having a much more difficult time deciphering the movement of messages on the RIM network as it has a closed PIN based password system for each message. One of the main problems with instant feed, user created, ‘news’ given light during the riots was that it became a major conduit for rumour which, while it may have kept people safe due to an extrapolation of the truth, had the net effect of stretching police presence thin by following many empty leads.

This innate fear of technology and the instant taking of arms against it is a worrying situation. When it is revealed to the greater public that the government would propose an idea with the scale of shutting down social sites and, it would seem, only be stopped by legality (which I’m sure we’re all thankful for) it begs the question of whether it is the people who use these services for ill that they fear or the power it provides a populace as a whole. The collective nature of anti-government sympathies and protest in Libya and Egypt of late show the unique organisational and ambassadorial properties this form of communication can give to people with little vocal output besides. While in those examples corrupt politics was undermined by the amassed people there is no saying that the same methods could not be employed over issues such as student fees or public sector pensions, which is not a far fetched concept as to why there is a fear of these emerging technologies; a sense of having no control.The UK runs under the application of human rights as opposed to the implementation of a set list such as the US constitution. This means that freedom of speech is not inherently a blanket ideal and that while this offers the safety of having each case independently heard on it own terms and merit it does not apply to the collective voice of any given service, group or even country.

These riots have shown once again the lack of understanding governments (remember this situation is not unique to the UK) have of the communication age into which they put so much stock. Communication and technology are the steam power and industry of our generation, computing embodies the forbearers of the printing press and the difference engine, while social networks stand on the shoulders of Marconi and Bell. And while they are currently as vilified as industrialisation, television and Elvis Presley ever were there needs to be a balance struck on a governed level between exploiting its fiscal benefits and accepting its ability to link and empower modern society. 

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