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.