COMMENTARY
 
Rethinking Social Media's Role after UK Riots
London and some other British cities saw widespread vandalism and violence for three consecutive nights following the killing of a suspect black gangster on August 6 by police in London. Back in 1985, the city’s Tottenham area, where Mark Duggan’s death occurred, had experienced riots after a similar incident. So was the case with the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the TV coverage of Rodney King being thrashed by LAPD personnel.

However, the two previous instances of civil unrest in the UK and USA respectively pale in comparison to the scale of loot and arson in London and elsewhere—and this appears to be largely due to the unprecedented power of social media sites and networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, in causing social unrest. This is in stark contrast to the pioneering role played by the same media in triggering the Arab Spring, which has ended decades-long dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in recent months.

For argument’s sake, each scientific innovation, which forms the essence of our modern life, has a bright and a dark side. Information technology can be put to good or bad use. Social media sites and networks connect us all in ways that were almost unimaginable in not-too-distant a past. It all depends on the end-user, whether one wants to make use of the cyber space for public good or not.

In the case of UK riots, social media’s role as force multiplier took a harmful course. Crime is rampant in London, which is no different from any other metropolitan city in Europe or North America. Instances such as the one in Tottenham do rarely occur. However, given the generally law abiding nature of Western societies, such instances are in most cases thoroughly investigated and those responsible are taken to task.

Public protests may also follow each such unwarranted happening, but they are also mostly peaceful. Only in exceptional cases do we observe protests turning violent. It is not like Mogadishu, where a UN depot containing supplies for the famine-stricken population, was recently looted by armed thugs with impunity; or Iraq after the 2003 invasion, when precious artefacts from the national museum in Baghdad were taken away by looters in broad-daylight.

In the present case, rioters in south and north London, and city centres of Birmingham, Manchester, and a few other British cities went on a rampage. By August 8 evening, the role of social media as force multiplier was in full swing—with BlackBerry messages and Twitter posts by rioters mobilising fellows and followers to lucrative spots with thin or virtually no police presence. With their faces covered with hoodies, the looters broke shop windows, grabbed and took away whatever they could, computers, clothes, and the rest. Consequently, parts of London burnt, with irreparable loss to businesses and properties seen in the capital and other city centres in the UK.

In some instances, the police response to the riots was indeed slower than expected; but, in others, the sheer number of rioters was such that it was impossible for the police to manage with the available strength and equipment. Even otherwise, the police personnel are not trained to wage cyber warfare. When the Research in Motion, the agency owing BlackBerry, offered to help the British police, its website was hacked by those acting on behalf of the rioters. In a message posted on the hacked website, they threatened the Black-Berry management of dire consequences if it cooperated with the police. The dilemma of the Digital Age is, therefore, not restricted to merely social media being misused for an activity that is not in public interest, but goes beyond in letting the end-misusers dictate their criminal agenda to the very managers of this media.

Since the immediate challenge for the British police was to prevent further loot and arson of businesses and properties, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron decided to deploy 16,000 police personnel in London, who were empowered to use non-lethal rubber bullets. Even after seeing so much destruction in the national capital and other cities, the government was unwilling to use water cannons, impose curfew or call in the army—options that governments elsewhere in the world frequently resort to in such eventualities.

Eventually, the swift and massive police action enforced law and restored peace in the city streets. CCTV seemed to counter-balance the effect of social media, as thousands were arrested and hundreds were charged, including those who killed three youths of Pakistani origin in Birmingham. Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the victims, the 21-year old Haroon, conducted himself in an exemplary manner by calling for clam, thereby preventing the rioting from assuming a racial dimension in Birmingham, a city with simmering racial tension between Asian and black communities.

Undoubtedly, there are broader social and economic reasons explaining why the youth, black or white, is willing en masse to loot and arson in a country that offers so many incentives in healthcare, housing and education to its deprived classes. In major Western cities, such as New York and London, poverty-ridden ghettos are located side by side with localities of affluence and opulence. It is but natural for all sorts of deprivations and grievances to arise in such cases, especially in times of acute economic crunch such as the present.

Moreover, unlike the United States or Canada, where family bonds are still strong and social values do matter, European countries, including the UK, do face this growing problem of social breakdown. There is serious problem of parenting, especially among poor black families surviving on social support. Addressing these manifold reasons may be a long haul, but one thing that the British government, or democratic governments across the world, cannot ignore is the power of the social media to cause social unrest, which needs a robust response. Their law-enforcement agencies have to learn the tools of the new medium as efficiently as those who break the law while abusing them do.

The problem with Western democracies is that they cannot prohibit public access to social media. China has, for instance, imposed restrictions on the use of Google. Likewise, Saudi Arabia has limited public access to instant messaging. Even social media’s positive role in triggering democratic revolts has received a correspondingly forceful response from state authorities in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. While using instances of failed democratic upsurge in Iran and Belarus as case studies, Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World even argues how the democratising power of new media may in fact bring not democracy and freedom, but the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes.

The role of the social media needs to be re-assessed in the light of such facts. Of course, for their part, Western democracies have no choice but to go along with whatever good or bad the internet age offers. It may be that social media itself offers the solutions to all the problems it has created. After all, at least in Twitter’s case, peace-loving Londoners have created #riotcleanup as a rival to rioters, bringing volunteers to unrest-ridden areas to clean up streets, re-build damaged businesses, and help restore normal life.

Wider public role in preventing mischief by a minority of miscreants in critical times is important. However, maintenance of social peace and protection of public property is the responsibility of the law enforcers. They have to familiarise themselves with the art of instant communication and rapid networking. The law enforcement agencies would do well to closely monitor the flow of information on social media networks and must have due access to communication systems whenever and wherever a crisis erupts so as to minimise its social and economic costs.

The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, August 12-18, 2011. It can be accessed at weeklypulse.org