An Inconvenient Necessity?

In Opinion on August 13, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you will be aware of the riots and their aftermath and the way they have been largely conducted over social media, for good and for ill.

I have already explained in a previous article, my idea that short, snappy soundbites that abound on social media sites largely foster a polarisation of public opinion (probably unintentionally). The good in the case of the riots is the proliferation of movements such as Riot Cleanup, Operation Cup Of Tea, Something Nice for Ashraf and Youth Against Violence, which aim to clear up the physical and metaphorical rubble. Alas, as much as these groups deserve more publicity than the bad, they are not nearly as controversial and in need of discussion.

The difficulty is what, if anything, to do about the fact that much of the criminal rioting was organised via social networks. Many rioters instantly (and selectively) communicated to friends the timings and whereabouts of the commotion, thus playing a large part in turning what was initially a small, localised demonstration into widespread civil disorder. In this manner, it is very similar to the Arab Spring, which spread exponentially with the help of social media after an equally particular catalyst (Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, in reaction to the confiscation of his goods and harassment and humiliation at the hands of officials).

While admitting social media can be used for ‘good’, Cameron asserted it can also be used for ‘ill’, such as the London riots which had been “organised via social media”. He also claimed and that the government was “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”. To this end, Cameron and his cabinet have communicated with social media companies such as RIM (the company that produces Blackberrys), Facebook and Twitter regarding the possibility of shutting down networks in emergency circumstances. All the above responded co-operatively, expressing a willingness to at least discuss the matter. While nothing to this end has been implemented so far (and looks unlikely to in the immediate future given the dissipation of the current riots), the idea is a very real possibility for the future. This is given the companies’ express willingness to co-operate and statements from the Prime Minister, such as: ‘When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them’. In a similar vein, the government may grant police greater freedom to remove scarves or hoods (so people may be identified by CCTV) and to stop and search.

This topical idea is very contentious because it is so intrinsically linked to the ever-controversial topic of civil liberties. Such curbing, even ‘denial’, of freedom of expression is always met with suspicion and condemnation in many quarters, and this situation is no different. The Open Rights Group – an organisation which aims to raise awareness of digital rights and civil liberties issues – has attacked the idea. Executive director Jim Killock claimed: “Clearly, a service will be used by people for legitimate activities, some of which will mitigate or deal with the problem encountered. In any case, innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others”. He furthered to declare the measures would be abused and generally “seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions”. My posing of the issue on the aforementioned Youth Against Violence Facebook page was also met with disapproval, even vitriol: ‘helllll no’, ‘foolish’ etc. liberate? liberate?

So, on the surface at least, it seems like a somewhat scarily authoritarian idea. I, and I daresay nearly everyone else, is in general agreement with the right to freely express oneself, whether on social media, in person, on the phone or whatever. Indeed, this is a right is enshrined in the cornerstone of utopian governance – The UN Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. This is all gravy, until it is seen to conflict with other freedoms set forth in the declaration, as it often is in the argument about what views on race/cultural heritage it is acceptable to air. An infamous case of this is the debate over whether BNP leader Nick Griffin should have been allowed to speak on Question Time (he eventually was). Some asserted that he was a legitimate party member with the freedom of expression to air his views. Others claimed that his ‘racist’ views would unduly infringe upon others’ freedoms – variously, rights to freedom of movement, equality, even ‘life, liberty and security of person’ through the supposed increased racial hatred/violence. The latter freedom is probably the most conflicting in the case of the riots.

Look beyond the admitted slippery slope to nightmarish visions of Orwellian societies, though, and Cameron certainly has a point. By nearly all accounts, the riots were largely organised by social media, and with a consequent alacrity and spontaneity that made them very, very hard to effectively police. Moreover, social media companies are suggesting that such widespread censorship is at least technically feasible. Essentially, if we ignore all undeniably sensible considerations of ethics/principles and ‘slippery slopes’ for just a second, the idea is practical and would in all likelihood be effective at quelling violence.

Furthermore, the argument can be cunningly flipped around; since these companies are private, their owners arguably have the freedom to choose when to temporarily shut them down, as they occasionally do for maintenance. I’m sure that’d be in the small print somewhere. Despite this idea, I’d still tend towards the theory that these measures would in principle represent an ‘infringement of civil liberties’ (‘opinions without interference… through any media and regardless of frontiers’ etc.). Nonetheless, I still support these measures….

...or, to censor?

...or, to censor?

Very few would argue these ideas are ideal, but we quite fucking obviously don’t live in an ideal society (nor world). We live in Britain; not Utopia, and a fractured Britain at that. In this undoubtedly volatile social context (the reasons for this are a different argument altogether), I’m not sure we can afford the privilege of absolute freedom of expression. The cycle works both ways, but I do think we need to show responsibilities to gain rights. Frankly, some have not shown responsibility by thieving plasma TVs, burning buildings and throwing bricks. The fact is a minority – a significant one, but a minority nonetheless – have committed acts considered by the majority (including myself) to be reprehensible and exacted upon innocent people. Surely, given this, the greater good is to do our upmost as a society to protect and help decent people and livelihoods such as the late Haroon Jahan and the burned Reeves Furniture Shop of Croydon. If the result for this is having to not Tweet or write typically pithy status updates for a few hours, then, personally, so fucking be it.

Similarly, I view increasingly stringent security and CRB checks as necessary; annoying, but necessary. Being what most would class as a ‘white middle class’ Brit, it is hard to realistically put myself in the position of ethnic minorities being consistently stopped and searched. Alike above, though, I would like to think I would have the sense of perspective to see the police officers were merely stopping me being, to their largely unknowing eyes, statistically more likely to be carrying a dangerous weapon than a white person from Chelsea – to make a crass, but largely accurate, generalisation. This can of course be a vicious cycle, and just one of a very complex web of cause and effects of deprivation, but this is not the debate I’m focusing on here.

I sense many people attacking this idea are usually the same left-leaning people that, whilst generally ruing the riots, rightly or wrongly call for lighter punishment for rioters in favour of forgiveness, empathy and societal change (education, bridging the economic divide, re-integration etc.). I regard this view as slightly over-optimistic and unrealistic, but I do think it is an admirable view to hold (indeed, I would generally regard myself as a liberal ‘Guardian reader’, but in light of recent events I’m coming to gradually regard these views and values as somewhat merely hypothetical). Given this, I see an irony in these undeniably innocent people not willing to pitch in by being inconvenienced in their cyber activities for an hour or two. Maybe it’s the fact that Cameron and the ‘bloody’ Tories are proposing them….

Another objection is the supposedly Big Brother-esque implications of it, for which one only has to look to China for support. I, though, have the faith in the politicians and the parliamentary structure for censorship to be only used when some serious, bad shit is going down. This is fully compatible with my support of the popular view that in a democracy one has to be prepared to be ‘offended’, but not physically ‘harmed’. The other argument advanced in this camp is that the government would have to be sinisterly monitoring social media at all times to see when trouble’s a’brewing. They wouldn’t really, however, because they could be alerted to this by the companies themselves, who all cast a somewhat shadowy yet omniscient eye over the blogospheres. How else do you think those Facebook ads are targeted with such unerring accuracy?!

A wise man once said, “you can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.” I’m not sure this always true, but I think it has a lot of pertinence for this discussion. If in this case, it is the feasible and moral choice I’d incline to say it was, I would most definitely go for peace. ‘Hypothetical simplification’ it may well be, yet I would be perfectly happy to sacrifice for a night virtual organisation of some party, or proffering my two cents worth on things, if there was any realistic chance of stopping some dickhead assaulting just one unwitting bystander or destroying just one innocent person’s business. Wouldn’t you?

Joel Durston


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