Sunday, 14 August 2011

Unsocial Media?

Last week, the MP for Corby and Northamptonshire, Louise Mensch, said blackouts of Twitter and Facebook would have helped the police during the recent riots. As rumours spread fast via social media, the police wasted valuable time responding to false alarms. Louise Mensch also said BBMs (BlackBerry Messenger), with which help riots and looting were being coordinated, could have been dealt with by carrying out "maintenance" for a short period of time. Although few argued she was wrong in assuming social media was used in such a way, she faced a lot of criticism for suggesting a shut down.

I also disagree with Louise Mensch. I can see where she is coming from, but at the end of the day, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of it are just tools. A way of communicating, like... you know, talking. Free speech, free use of social media is part of our rights but it also comes with responsabilities. People will use it both for good and bad. In my view, bans or shutdowns, like the ones we saw during the Arab Spring, must be avoided.

Personally, I made good use of Twitter during the riots. And no, not for rioting. On 'that' Monday evening, my non tweeting daughter had to get from work in North London back to her home in Hackney. I had been observing the escalating violence and rioting during the afternoon, via twitter and the news. She hadn't. I knew she hadn't, as she was busy working that day. Obviously, she had heard things were happening but was not aware of the way the riots had spread.

The more I heard about things kicking off in Hackney, the more I felt I had to warn her. I texted her and she texted me back and promised she would look out for my texts. I was following the #hackney, #londonfields and the #dalston hashtags on twitter as well as the #riots and the #london ones. I saw a lot of people warning about 'bike mugging', especially in London Fields. I sent a her another SMS. "Make sure your mobile is charged before leaving work and - hold on to it!" She replied: "Oh, I'm heading to South London first, to pick up my NEW (!) bike after work, then I'll be cycling back to Hackney and London Fields."

Yeah right. "Recalculating"...

Her boyfriend was going to join her from (his) work in South London - on his bike. However, once they heard from me how the riots had spread and developed into the very area where they lived, they decided to leave their bikes in South London and take the tube to Dalston Junction, then walk. We kept in touch via SMS during their journey back. Via twitter, I could keep up with the movements of the rioting mob and make sure they knew which areas to avoid. Note - I don't even live in London, I live in Swindon... It was with a great sigh of relief I finally received a text saying they were now back home. Safe. Well, at least they were indoors.

This is just one example of how social media was put to good use during the riots. I am sure lots of people did the same thing as we did, to protect loved ones. As we now all know, communities later made incredibly good use of social media in the clean up process. Not least @Riotcleanup did a brilliant job organising help across London for both cleaning and general support.

I think a shutdown of social media would not just be undesirable. It would be dangerous.
What do you think?

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