Various explanations for the riots in London in the past week have been flouted. Diversity, white liberals who control the media, rap music, people who scream racism, multiculturalism, infantilism, victim-centers narcissistic politics, black people, liberal dogma, the breakdown of family, no threat of capital punishment or deportation to Australia for the underclass and the “social engineering industry” have all been suggested by various right-wing commentators. Others contend UK austerity measures, including the closing of youth clubs, are partly to blame.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron says gangs are responsible for the chaos and disorder in London over the past days. He blamed what happened on parents, suggesting in a statement, “Parents of these children—if they are still around—do not care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing.” He also said street gangs that are “territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent,” mostly composed of “young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes,” fueled the unrest. And, he intends to consult officials in the US in the coming days so that the UK can begin to crackdown on gangs and prevent further attacks on innocent bystanders.
In assessing the situation, Cameron has determined police powers should be expanded. Cameron has announced he intends to make certain the police have the right to “require the removal of face coverings under any circumstances where there is reasonable suspicion that they are related to criminal activity.” Cameron suggests the consideration of a curfew if necessary.
Cameron is open to the idea of cracking down on freedom of expression and free speech, saying media and social media companies displaying images of the riots may need to think about taking down the images. He also is advocating for granting powers to the police to “trace people on Twitter or BlackBerry Messenger” and shut users down and has gone so far as to suggest that services actually be suspended, if necessary, to restore order.
Open Rights Group, a UK organization that advocates for freedom of expression, privacy and consumer rights, considers Cameron’s attacks on social media to be unwarranted. In response to Cameron’s calls to suspend services, they state, “Innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others.” In response to calls to suspend accounts, they say, “The coalition should resist calls for police powers or private arrangements for account suspensions” because such calls “represent the worst type of so-called ‘self-regulation’ and could quickly lead to abuses. Courts protect us from this.”
On the security and privacy of users, Open Rights warns against proposals that would undermine the right to use personal encryption keys. The organization notes how encryption provides security for individuals in the United Arab Emirates and other countries and concludes shutting down social media would set a bad example.
New measures to remove web freedoms of any sort will quickly be seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions. The UK should not be using the same methods as governments in China, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
Making laws in haste, with limited analysis and information, to deal with an exceptional problem is likely to create unbalanced laws and abuses of our rights.
Reports have highlighted how social media is part of the efforts to clean up now. Imagine what would have happened if social media services had been shut down. Cleanups being organized through Twitter may not be taking place right now. Sure, if social media was shut down, individuals could go out on the streets and organize cleanups in their community in person but residents of a community would be less able to regain control of the space they live in if the UK government shut down social media.
One might ask why a clampdown is called for against those calling on people to join in the rioting but not individuals sending messages that call for the “scum” to be shot and murdered. Here are some examples of messages the UK government might want to investigate, if they are serious about cracking down on incitements to violence:
What about the right wing English Defense League (EDL), which blames Muslims for the violence and has mobilized middle-aged men to act as vigilantes to “help” restore order? Cameron calls their attempts to restore order “sick.” One would hope there would be a crack down on EDL using social media to spread messages of hate that could further exacerbate the violence just as much as any young kid, who seeks to add his or her additional two cents in support of looting or setting fire to a business.
Twitter, Facebook or Black Berry Messengers (BBMs) are not responsible for the rioting. The suggestion that social media or mobile technology fueled the riots, especially at this moment, is more correlative than causal, meaning politicians and pundits are saying because these messages were sent out on a network people went out into the streets to riot. But, who believes those who participated would have stayed at home if they didn’t read a message on Twitter but were still able to view the chaos on the streets of London by watching TV?
If Twitter, Facebook or BBMs are to blame, TV news reports are to blame too. BBC News is to blame for reporting on what was happening on the streets and letting others know where the action was taking place because others could have easily joined the riots if they had wanted. Media which repeated any calls for violence from rioters, as part of their coverage, are to be held responsible because youth could have heard those calls and they could have resonated with them in such a way that led them to go destroy property.
The same people who espouse cyber-utopianism and are quick to declare the revolution will be Twittered are the same people who are now quick to suggest the riots will be BBMed. The far-reaching conclusions drawn in the aftermath are the same kind of far-reaching conclusions drawn from the Arab Spring and even the 2009 uprising by the so-called Green Movement of Iran.
Evgeny Morozov writes in The Net Delusion, a must-read for anyone who really wants to understand how the Internet is changing societies, “The reason why so many politicians believe in the power of the Internet is because they have not given this subject much thought. Their faith is not the result of a careful examination of how the Internet is being used by dictators or how it is changing the culture of resistance and dissent. On the contrary, most often it’s just unthinking acceptance of conventional wisdom, which posits that since authoritarian governments are censoring the Internet, they must be really afraid of it. Thus, according to this view, the very presence of a vibrant Internet culture greatly increases the odds that such regimes will collapse.
Granted, the youths in London were promoting the destruction of a social order, not the construction of a new social order like those who participated in the Arab Spring, and one might take issue with the attempt to apply Morozov’s view on Internet freedom to the riots. But, it seems like Cameron and others, who think technology is responsible for the riots, are just as deluded as those who believe the cyber-utopian fantasy that Tunisia and Egypt was a Twitter or Facebook revolution.
In focusing on social media, UK leaders excuse themselves from addressing the true sociopolitical problems driving people into the streets. They think the easy answer is to remove the tool but if the tool is taken away the people are still there. They want to crack down on gangs but take away the gangs and severely disillusioned and disgruntled youths, who do not believe they have a stake in their community or future, still are there.
What they don’t grasp is any amount of force or repression can be used will only move people into prisons or force individuals to internalize their anger toward society. That internalization will just manifest itself in the home through domestic violence and other crimes. Powerlessness and fear may also turn into a deeper racism as sections of the population are blamed for a person’s situation.
Shutting down social media or removing anonymity in protests doesn’t prevent any social upheaval at all. It may actually increase the possibility of tensions. Making it easier for police to designate protests as riots so they can use police powers to disperse and punish individuals exercising their civil liberties clearly cannot be expected to address the ills of society. As Laurie Penny eloquently puts it, “The language of “true Brits” defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots. Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.”
Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation appeared on Bloomberg TV to discuss Cameron’s calls to shut down social media if necessary. York nicely explains why the outcome of new police powers designed to prevent further rioting could yield few results.