Social Media: The Jekyll & Hyde of Media?
"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media . . . Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them." – British Prime Minister David Cameron
But Twitter was also used to organize a resistance movement (#riotcleanup) that coordinated crowds of citizens from the riot-affected areas. Citizens who were outraged by the violence came together to clean up the damage. The effort was a local action that turned into a movement; with the broom as its symbol, the cleanup campaign spread across the country as quickly as the riots did, thanks to . . . social media.
I realize it is slightly ludicrous to discuss “social media” in an anthropomorphic sense. Social media is a tool used by people, and can be used in any number of ways, from organizing weeks of peaceful protests that led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime to organizing destructive riots that set fire to London for days. Yet as I watched the coverage of the events in London I couldn’t help but picture social media like this:
While the past year has shown us the incredible range and potential of social media, the London riots acutely illuminated the dramatic contrast between the destructive and constructive utility of these new technologies – in exactly the same context, in less than a week.
In addition to the #riotcleanup campaign, social media was used to collect food and clothing for those left homeless by the fires. And in a beautiful fusion of old and new media, a “walls of love” campaign has spread across the devastated areas.
Much like the #riotcleanup, the “walls of love” are collections of post-it notes, declaring love and support, stuck to the windows and walls of damaged buildings.
"The riots were very public, so the public counteraction is a critical aspect of this. Our environment has been redefined and reshaped — human beings use visual markings to claim areas — so people are partly reclaiming their streets by putting down a territorial element." –psychologist Geoff Beattie
The public nature of virtually every angle of the situation in London is telling; the way we communicate is changing the way we behave. The relationship between politics and the emerging communications landscape is enormously complex, and I will not claim to understand it. What I do want to highlight is the importance of measured responses in situations where technology is being used to promote violence.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime claimed peaceful protesters were a threat to public safety and the good of the nation. In the name of national security, Egypt pulled the plug on the Internet in January, 2011. The international community gasped in shock.
A year earlier, the United Arab Emirates had banned Blackberry usage because of the country had difficulty monitoring their encrypted technology. The resulting outcry from the international community was impossible to ignore, and the United Arab Emirates shifted its stance.
Even the United States has been grappling with balancing media freedom and security. Just last week, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) interrupted cell phone service on its platforms to prevent a possible protest to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” Internet freedom activists created hashtag #MuBARTek, highlighting the similarity in behavior between BART and former Egyptian leader.
I’m sure many will scoff at my idealism, but I believe in the power of a free, public information space to self-correct. While any tool can be used for sinister purposes, I would argue that the public nature of Internet and communications technologies creates a new form of accountability from the eventual revelation of the truth. From the phony Gay Girl In Damascus blog to the Anthony #Weinergate scandal, it’s getting more and more difficult for people to manipulate information. The truth eventually surfaces.
Leaders need to keep in mind that ANY tool can be used for good and evil.
In thinking through the potential progression of the events of the past few months, I can’t help but remember this famous quote:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”—Benjamin Franklin
Where we draw the lines of “essential liberty” is a question that deserves serious consideration, as the consequences have far-reaching implications.