Avoiding the Real Problem: Social Media & the London Riots

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September 13, 2011 by Nash Riggins

“[This movement] belongs to a new generation for whom technology – the Internet and social media – is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best.”

Before you ask, no – this speech is not David Cameron referring to riots in England. It is in fact David Cameron praising the spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in a February speech to the National Assembly of Kuwait. Yet it’s only fitting that the Prime Minister’s words are now revisited, in the wake of Chester Crown Court’s decision to jail two twenty-somethings for a term of up to four-years for ‘using Facebook to incite riots.’

Bear in mind that these two men were not accused of committing any acts of violence, looting, or rioting whatsoever. In fact, their innocence of committing violence was not even denied by the court; the two were merely accused of creating a Facebook page encouraging rioters. Indeed they did, therefore the Court ruled that for doing so, the two should each receive a four-year prison sentence.

After seeing videos of burning buildings and looting from corner shops throughout Greater London, one should be hard-pressed to find anyone who would openly support such violence – it was malicious and senseless to say the least, spearheading courts’ reasoning for handing out less-than-merciful sentences. In the sentencing of the two Facebook users, one official’s rationale was simple: “the place where you live, the place where you shop, the streets where your children play, should feel safe.”

On a side note, that was most likely Ben Ali’s rationale for jailing half of his political enemies in Tunisia, too. And where is he now? Exactly.

Let’s not forget that the uprising in Tunisia began with one man being mistreated by police, and in retaliation the Tunisian people overthrew their dictator in the course of, literally, a single day. Luckily for David Cameron, he was on holiday for the first three days of rioting; therefore, he was unavailable for any potential lynching that may have otherwise been planned and coordinated via Facebook.

In fact, after returning early from his fifth holiday in four months, Mr Cameron’s first response toward handling rioting in ‘his’ streets was to pursue the logistics of a potential social media shutdown during times of civil unrest. Furthermore, the Prime Minister said he would be exploring whether it was ‘right and possible’ to stop people from texting during civil unrest.

If anything, such situations are the times in which communication is most vital. If there is rioting in the streets of London, friends and relatives need to be in contact to ensure that everyone is safe. The government benefits from celebrity tweets regarding the stupidity of violent unrest. And to top it all off, David Cameron has updated his Facebook status more times in the past two weeks than P. Diddy and J.Lo combined.

Freedom of speech ensures every citizen’s right to criticise its government. Politicians are already blasted daily for their policies via online media – what do they care if there are a million tweets at a time calling to ‘bring the government down?’ Of those one million media users, nearly all of them are intelligent enough to know that burning down your neighbour’s home won’t fix the economy – or get David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street.

Social media is not the problem – problems are the problem, and most citizens won’t go looting just because a Facebook group encourages it. To assume otherwise is not only insulting to voters’ intelligence, but insulting to voters’ basic human rights. Because of Mr Cameron’s recent ‘enquiries’ into the legality of his ability to shut down social mediums at will, even Communist-run Chinese newspapers are mocking Britain’s hypocritical stance regarding freedom of speech.

So the question remains: what is the most reasonable and effective response to handling civil unrest? It’s more complicated than blaming social media or texting. For fuck’s sake, give the man who burnt down the shop and assaulted the police officer four years in prison – not the man who stayed indoors and praised him. If anything, this sort of judgement should cause further dissent – at least David Cameron said as much six months ago:

“As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values – in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the Internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.”

Britain is not the Middle East, and social media will not overthrow the government; but even David Cameron should know better than to jail citizens just for speaking their minds.

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