Social Media & London Riots – was it to blame?

In the aftermath of the London Riots there are many questions being asked about the role of social media in the riots.

Police, politicians and some media were quick to blame social media for exacerbating the problem.

To the point where David Cameron considered banning rioters from social media sites if they are considered on plotting criminal activities.

The government is holding meetings with Research in Motion (company that runs Blackberry), Facebook and Twitter to discuss their responsibility in the riots.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill,” said Cameron.

“And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”

This has opened a huge debate about the fine line of freedom of speech vs censoring content vs data protection laws. The other recent example of where social media was shut down during riots was in Eygpt, where the government closed down the internet to block people protesting – and the outstanding thing is that we’re a democracy.

A very good report by BBC Click has a very different view on this:

If one of these platforms was closed down during riots, the people involved would only start using other platforms and would adapt their behaviour  according.

Admittedly is the Blackberry Messenger is a messenger system only for Blackberry users which is renowned for it’s security and stability as it’s private and encrypted.  The servers which were used to send the messages are in Canada and therefore international laws apply.  Not only that it’s unclear whether RIM store the data that’s sent.

So with anything there’s a balance which needs to be defined, but blocking individuals when they know they are using social networks for plotting violence & criminality will take a degree of knowledge of the social networks to enable to do this.  It’s also unclear on how they would monitor social networks to be able to make these decisions.

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