Thursday, 25 August 2011

UK seems prepared to crack down on social networks regardless of evidence

"Johnny Melfah is said to have posted several messages on a group that had been set up called “Letz start a riot”, encouraging people to riot in Worcester.
Yesterday the chairman of the bench at Worcester magistrates’ court decided to lift restrictions on identification, deeming it in the public interest, despite the teenager not having entered a plea.
A week ago the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance to prosecutors to ask courts to “lift the anonymity of a youth defendant when they believe it is required in the public interest that the youth be identified”.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said that she wanted as many of the young criminals involved in the riots as possible to be identified. More than 1,400 people have now appeared in court charged with riot-related offences."

So the courts have spoken, not only will they treat posting to social networks as equal to actual disorder and violence offence, but they seem determined to make it even worse. All part of a pattern of crack downs on social networks in the west.

But is this real or just scapegoating. During the Arab Spring many people questioned the degree to which social networks like Twitter and Facebook were really making things happen. The very different paths of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria prove that history and culture are larger factors than technology in shaping the modern age.

The London riots were a feast for analysis firms like our own to understand tweeting role in social events, a recent study has confirmed what we assumed from our own work, that twitter was responding not leading the protest.

"A preliminary study of a database of riot-related tweets, compiled by the Guardian, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.

Timing trends drawn from the data question the assumption that Twitter played a widespread role in inciting the violence in advance, an accusation also levelled at the rival social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger."

So if the evidence is clearly against social networks impacting criminality why are governments willing to crack down and kill the messenger? We see several key factors:

  • The public clearly believes that social networks are the problem and the government is just following public opinion.
  • Governments don't really understand social networks and are afraid of the chaotic element they add to social discourse.
  • Governments don't like the idea that everyone can publish content and want to set up strict enforced limits to what is allowed, even in democratic societies.

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