I should clarify at the outset that I'm on the good guys side here, so when I say help or hinder I'm talking about restoring peace and order to things rather than helping rioters loot or whatever they do.
Anyway, that minor taking of sides out of the way, I'm writing this because yesterday a study was released suggesting that most Brits would support government plans to shut down social networks during times of civil unrest.
Obviously the allegation is that social media is a tool for ill and helps rioters to organise and co-ordinate their nefarious activities. As with many utterings by politicians however these allegations seem to be rather lacking in any kind of evidence. They seem to rest on the fact that some of the looters used Blackberry messenger to talk to each other.
Thankfully there is some actual academic research into how social networks can be used to manage large groups of people, just like those during the riots this summer. The research is being done by the EU and Brazil so it has some clout.
The EU and Brazil will join forces to "deploy interoperable internet infrastructures looking at how trends on data and social networking can be applied to domains such as the management and monitoring of large crowds at large scale events, emergency situations and mobility".
As a start point they might look at the research done by Clifford Stott
on how crowds turn violent. He suggests that ‘riots’ cannot be understood as an explosion of ‘mob ‘irrationality’. Nor can they be adequately explained in terms of individuals predisposed to criminality by nature of their pathological disposition.
Stott suggests that crowds become violent when indiscriminate force is used upon the crowd. This action encourages what were previously individual protestors to come together as a group against their common foe.
Whilst he doesn't advocate excusing the behaviour of rioters it is nevertheless important to understand the contextual reasons behind their behaviour. He does not recommend the reactive use of force. Instead police should prioritize proactive interventions based upon dialogue as a means for building and maintaining police legitimacy.
Restricting access to social media would therefore be a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. The government should be increasing dialogue with the communities they purport to serve rather than limiting it.
Indeed social media can be used to help communicate with protestors and reassure those of a peaceful disposition are not the target of police actions and providing information on how they can safely remove themselves from harms way.
Shutting down social media simply is not the answer. Increasing dialogue before, during and after any unrest is the way to go.