As the voracious interest to watch, understand and contextualise real time events increases, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook are fast becoming the favoured source for live information. Many a time I’ve watched the twitter stream of an event or a story’s respective hash tag, hanging on every word like I’m in the middle of the action. Last week, as both London and the rest of the UK descended into anarchy, Twitter’s role in both reporting news (albeit sometimes with questionable accuracy or objectivity) and facilitating mobilisation efforts by both rioters and anti-rioters, has been significant.
It’s emerged that Blackberry’s proprietary IM platform enabled rioters to target specific areas, while Twitter was not only used to organise the criminality, but also as a forum for those wishing to advertise their loot via photo’s and video’s.
However it’s also important to recognise the more positive impact social media has had on events. Twitter hash tags such as #prayforlondon and #riotcleanup have also been trending, showing the desire by those to clean up the mess left behind by the mob, and get London, and other affected areas, back on their feet. Moving forward, Twitter, along with You Tube, Facebook and Flickr have started the movement to expose those who have previously bragged about their conquests. This has been picked up by mainstream media and is now being acted upon by the authorities to bring criminals to justice.
The role that Social Media and technology as a whole plays in mobilising and organising protests has come under immense scrutiny with the recent riots. Would these have happened without the wrath of technology now available to us? Should the use of these real-time platforms be more stringently policed? And if so, what does that mean for one of the civil rights our society holds most dear – Freedom of Speech?
Today we have seen the first arrests of those who have used Twitter to incite violence and yobbish behaviour, with the prospect of more to come. While most applaud this, the question has to be asked as to whether criminalising such activity may compromise individuals freedom to express their views, or to say organise more peaceful protests by this medium in the future.
I for one couldn’t answer many of these questions with a authority right now, but clearly as the use of social media grows exponentially, governments and legislators will be expected to, and to be able to provide more coherent direction as to the freedom in which social media can be used moving forward.