As the British discuss the root causes of violent riots in London and other cities, the conversation about the continuing chaos has also found a new topic: to ban or not to ban some social media use.
In a speech before an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron placed the blame of the “horrific actions” on social media sites:
We are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.
His proposed ban has given the social media world plenty to tweet about. It’s also put technology companies back in discussions with a government body.
Cameron said the government would meet with technology companies to discuss their roles, something the companies have not seemed too keen on doing. Just this June, Twitter’s cofounder Biz Stone mocked the State Department’s sudden interest in cozying up to Twitter and Facebook has tried to distance itself from the role it played in the Middle East uprising.
However, is the social media debate a red herring? Ramesh Srinivasan, a New York University professor who spent time studying the role of social media in the Middle East uprisings, thinks it might be. He doesn’t argue that it performs no role, only that the role should not be over emphasized.
While activists and younger, wealthier, and educated citizens may connect with one another and build strong ties via these technologies, legitimate grievances and community organizing more directly played a role in mobilizing the masses. Confronting these grievances by cutting off or hacking a communication technology... fails to address the deep-rooted dissatisfaction that drove people to take to the streets. The Egypt case shows that when a regime cuts Internet, television, and mobile phone networks, protester numbers may actually increase.
There is a huge difference between peaceful protesters and angry crowds of rioters, but the conversation has still turned away from what — if any — grievances may be inspiring the worst violence and criminality Britain has seen in years.
The conversation is not about the root of the problem — what Cameron says is “a compete lack of responsibility in parts of our society” — but rather on what may happen if Cameron does pursue a social media ban.