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Friday, August 26, 2011

Social Media in Protests and Criminal Activity

Officials from the E.U. state of Britain met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry on August 26, 2011 “to discuss voluntary ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest.” Theresa May, the state’s home minister, said the aim of the meeting was to “crack down on the networks being used for criminal behavior.” However, reducing the protests, rioting, and looting to such behavior ignores the point that civil unrest can include political protest. So it may be disturbing to some that the discussion, according to some who were present, “was still aimed at reeling in social media and strengthening the hand of law enforcement in gathering information.” What would stop the police from gathering information on people taking part in a political protest against police brutality, for example? It would be convenient for a police department to classify a march as “criminial behavior” in breaching the peace, or simply collect information without any subterfuge.

Jo Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship, observed, “You do not want to be on a list with the countries that have cracked down on social media during the Arab Spring.” Indeed, Iran sent a human rights delegation to Britain to study human rights violations.” It is worth pointing out that the E.U., of which Britain is a state, has a charter of human rights. Yet as Gordon Scobbie, a senior police employee pointed out, the police’s duty to protect people from being harmed by others should be balanced with human rights rather than simply disregarded. Innocent people in Britain were afraid for their housing and lives during the riots, and it would surely be moral for the police to have protected them. The decisive question is perhaps whether officials’ special access to social media could effectively be limited to this moral purpose, which is delimited by criminal rather than political behavior.

As Lord Acton said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the state gains too much control over individual citizens, that alone can act as a pressure-cooker that could explode in political violence and even revolution. What would stop a government from using its inroads in social media to defend itself from the political opposition? Furthermore, to the extent that social interaction and liberty are things that should be valued in a society (and republic), might decreased privacy, such as is already the case on Facebook, be counterproductive in the long run? Might even the potential invasiveness lead people to feel less secure, and thus more susceptible to joining efforts to topple the regime itself? In other words, too much institutional control of individuals can backfire and give rise to a self-fulfilling prophesy.


Ravi Somaiya, “In Britain, A Meeting on Limiting Social Media,” New York Times, August 26, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/26/world/europe/26social.html