Yesterday Britain’s Prime Minister announced that he has asked security forces to consider a way to limit the public’s use of social media sites as a way to curb or prevent rioting, looting and other thuggery. As soon as I heard this news I was at first shocked that a member country of the free world would even consider such a move. Yes, communication tools have been used to spawn horrible acts in the past, probably the worst in current history was the use of the media, both print and radio, to spread the Hutu’s message of ethnic cleansing across Rwanda in 1994.
Today with connectedness having become far reaching with tools like Twitter, Facebook and now Google Plus, we do have a greater responsibility in measuring the impact of our words and messages. But to go as far as limiting communication, in my opinion, turns what is a small event compared to genocide into a mark on the freedoms of the British people that will not be easily forgotten. Worse yet I think it shows a lack of understanding what social media really offers. For decades the media has been carefully controlled and even scripted by politicians and governments to execute policy-driven messages. The White house and Downing Street has for decades been very careful to share and suggest what images they wish the media to use and what sound bytes or speeches they wish to be publicized. The journalists that adhere to this policy are the ones given special access or first knowledge of breaking news. The ones that violate it quickly learn to adjust. (read more on how policy is shaped and controlled through the media. This article was written in 2005 and does not include the greater changes since the growth of social media). With new media though, there is no control over what is said. Large media companies no longer have the podium they used to have over blogs, celebrities and others that have risen in popularity. Events are reported as they happen through open channels of communication.
Before Mr. Cameron decides to give social media a heavy hand to curb thuggery, I hope he considers the true power he holds. Just as King George VI used the radio to calm his realm and prepare them for the battle that was before the nation, Prime Minister Cameron can choose to use the powerful reach given him just as it is given to every citizen he is considering silencing. I hope he chooses wisely.