Turning Off Social Media During Civil Unrest

When the 2009 Iranian uprisings occurred, it was technology, specifically social media, that erased the country’s borders and enabled protestors to communicate their criticisms and display their acts on the world stage. This was truly the first time young people used social media as a tool for social change. Social media took the power out of the government’s hands and put it in the hands of the young who were protesting a repressive government.

Zooming ahead to Egypt in 2011, it was an expanded and more sophisticated social media and high tech cell phones that once again eliminated the ability of government to maintain communication borders. Pictures, instant messages, tweets, voicemails, cell phone pictures, Facebook updates, webcam video and more flowed out of the country to cell phones and computers around the world. Social media was a catalyst for massive government and social change.

Everyone applauded the use of social media for civil disobedience. In fact, the technology giant Google made sure the Egyptians could send messages even if the internet was blocked by setting up a tweet-by-voice service.

Now it’s August 2011 and civil disobedience has hit the United Kingdom. It was not expected, and it seemed to be composed of a bunch of young rebels with time on their hands who were causing trouble. Once again, social media was used, but this time the government said it was used to organize and plot violence with no purpose except to loot and terrorize people and businesses.  As a result, the British Prime Minister has suggested that the government is exploring the possibility of shutting down social media and cell phone services if they were used for spawning and promoting disorder.

These are three cases in which social media led to violence. In two cases, social media was praised as a communication tool. In one case it is damned as a tool for civil disobedience. Yet there are many who believe the London riots were not simply bored youth looking for trouble. They believe the riots are sending a youthful message about social injustice due to unemployment, class differences and so on. The violence was wrong, but you could find many who would say the same thing about the Iranian and the Egyptian violence.

The proposal to shut down social media when the government deems the messages to be promoting violence is not a good solution to its concerns.  Such an act would violate civil liberties for everyone. That is not moving forward. That is moving backwards. The governments must adjust to the use of social media because England cannot control its communication borders any more than Iran or Egypt. In fact, it is disappointing that shutting down social media would even be suggested in a country that promotes freedom of speech.




2 thoughts on “Turning Off Social Media During Civil Unrest

  1. It’s not just being proposed in the western world, it’s already happening.

    San Francisco officials cut off phone signals to train passengers to thwart protest over police killing

    If the public allows the government to grant itself the authority to shut down social media to ‘prevent’ (or simply: in times of) civil unrest then we should be aware that we will inevitably be accepting the right of governments to shut down social media whenever they see fit, for whatever reason, no matter what whatever situation is (or perhaps without any actual ‘situation’ existing at all).

    In other words, the power to disrupt the publics’ ability to communicate in real time (by text, voice, video, photos, documents) will *inevitably* end up being used to suit the the interests of the government, and NOT the interests of the public.

    Such proposals are a clear case of what is commonly known as ‘Problem – Reaction – Solution’

    In an age where the police are becoming increasingly militarized and Orwellian surveillance technologies are being introduced virtually on a the daily basis including drone aircraft (now being deployed in the west against the general public having been tested in the middle east), X-ray vans capable of spying on you in your homes, lamposts with microphones (I’m not making this stuff up!)….. the only safeguard we (the public) really have is our ability to witness injustice/ brutality/ corruption when it occurs and spread the images via social networks.

    The massive increase in corruption being exposed into the ‘establishment’ (illegal wars, WMD’s, false flag terrorism, expenses scandals, institutional child rape rings etc) is not because the establishment is getting any more corrupt – it is because this information age allows the public to pool resources and compete with the establishment controlled mainstream media and thus get this information out into the public domain!

    Logic and common sense tells us that this information technology that empowers the public is a threat to the establishment which has for centuries controlled information ever since (for example) the age when the Bible was only written in Latin and so had to be interpreted by the priests on behalf of the people. Information is power. Go figure.

    Earlier this year when a group of about 20 peaceful, fun ‘silent dancing’ flashmobbers were brutally body slammed and arrested by police in Washington, social networks ensured the local police station was flooded with calls demanding an explanation, their release, an official statement even before the arrested and brutalized flashmobbers had arrived in police vans to be processed! Such is the power of social networks to ‘police the police’ – and in real time.

    As for the recent riots themselves, we see social networks being used to spread intelligent analysis and ask difficult questions which you will NEVER hear being discussed in the mainstream media…… no doubt another reason why the government wants to start banning such communications. They much rather we all just watched ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ instead.

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