Should social media be shut down during a riot?

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The riots in London this summer were aided by rioters coordinating efforts via the Blackberry messenger service. This resulted in some MPs calling for a social media blackout during times of civil unrest.

A new study has shown that the public support such a notion. A poll of 973 adults carried out for the online security firm Unisys found 70% of adults supported the shutdown of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), while only 27% disagreed.

75% believed that the government should have free access to any data shared via social media in order to combat crime.  Support for such initiatives was strongest amongst over 65's, whilst the younger people showed least support.  Not surprisingly this corresponded broadly with usage of social media.

A word of sanity

Padraig Reidy from Index on Censorship thankfully provided a voice of sanity during this debate.

"It's very worrying that people would believe shutting down social networks would be in any way desirable," he said. "The vast majority of social network use during the unrest was people sreading information and helping each other get home safely. These kinds of actions would weaken the UK's position against authoritarian regimes who censor internet access. As we live more of our lives online, people should be conscious of the amount of power they're potentially handing over to government."

I find this whole suggestion totalitarian in the extreme.  Give me your thoughts below.  

Should social media be blacked out during civil unrest?

21 thoughts on “Should social media be shut down during a riot?

  1. I'd like to know a lot more about this study.

    Wouldn't you?

    Since my initial reaction is one of shock, my first thought is that because Unisys is a security company, it has a vested interest in people who favour, well, security.

    Without knowing more about the study, it's impossible to comment on the results. Who was polled? How were they polled? How were they led?

    As an ex-scientist and a copywriter, my feeling is that you can create experiments to prove whatever you like, and you can build arguments to swing people either way.

    Newspapers release these findings to stimulate debate and stir the argument. But science tells us we should examine the method of the study, because they always have a bearing on results.

    For example, if I polled 1,000 of my followers on twitter, I don't think I'd get the same response. But I could be wrong. What do you think?

    • Thanks for your comment Hayes, and good points. I've asked for a bit more information from Unisys and will report back when I hear more.

  2. Like Hayes I'm naturally dubious about these kind of surveys as they often lack academic rigour and are designed purely to garner press coverage.

    However, looking at the broader issue of whether governments should have the ability to shut down social networks, that's a big hell no from me.

  3. I have to agree with the previous posts. This is somewhat suspect and I have to question any organization doing a poll or survey which would of course enhance their own agenda. If this study were carried out by an independent third party, I would fee differently.

    I was going to repost it, but by doing so, I think it only adds creditability to the study.

  4. I see it's been picked up by Mashable and Forbes in the past few hours, not that this validates the research of course.

    Discussing the main point though of whether or not social media should be switched off by governments, I'd feel incredibly uneasy about that and would fight incredibly hard to stop it happening.

  5. Social media also provided a platform and voice for those decrying the behaviour of the rioters so I think any move to have social media outlets closed down during such extreme and unusual events would be counterproductive.

    There will already be a degree of monitoring being undertaken to identify and combat terrorism and the likes and there was a conviction in Glasgow of a youth who set up a facebook page trying to covet support for spreading the civil unrest to Scotland.

    I think we'd need to work harder at demonstrating a link between social media and rioting or any other kind of criminality and, if such a link can be demonstrated, it would seem reasonable to assume the perpetrators could also be identified?

    Therefore – no reason to start meddling in internet services (and wasn't there a recent ruling that internet access is a basic human right by the ECHR so any such move to deny access by a Government may be illegal?)

  6. You have to admit though, from the governments perspective this would be attractive. I can certainly see why they'd want to shut down social media during a riot.

  7. Pingback: Do social networks help or hinder in a riot? | Adi Gaskell says...

  8. I read the post and it is really very informative regarding social media. I like the posts like this. Thanks for sharing such an information and letting me to share my thoughts also.

  9. Pingback: Crowd dynamics in a riot | Adi Gaskell says...

  10. After a year of social unrest, Bill Wasik writes, it's worth revisiting Malcolm Gladwell's claim that social media offers little of practical value to would-be revolutionaries. The Arab Spring uprisings and Occupy protests have shown that while social networks may not in themselves be enough to foment revolution, they are powerful tools in the hands of an already-motivated population. "Activists may need 'strong ties' to risk their lives in the streets, but it’s clear those ties can stretch across continents, and can consist entirely of bits," Wasik writes.
    http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/12/gladwell

  11. I think censoring social media by governments or even totally blocking social media such as twitter and facebook (blocked in China) is just another way to control and manipulate citizens. Whether it results in more or less violent protests I think is very difficult to ascertain.

  12. Our good governing bodies are just looking for any way to make sure that they have control over the information on the internet aren't they?
    Should government be allowed to shut down social media during times of civil unrest? There's a question, now.
    If you ask any member of the federal government here in Canada – they would call this entire year a time of civil unrest. Where would it end? There's one reason and one reason only for this type of research – our governing bodies are trying to find ways to keep their ways quiet. Don't help them to do that.
    Even if you believe your government is fair, and in place because it's need ultimately outweighs it's damage.. the fact is, that everyday, somewhere on our planet – someone in power is abusing that power. Since the increase in popularity of social media – and the switch has come about from sharing mythical onions and tomatoes in your Farm, to sharing information and media bites, suddenly those who are abusing that power are being caught and called out. This can not possibly be a bad thing! We should all fight for and hold dear our social media, where the truth comes out, on a daily basis!

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