It is common knowledge that the world hails social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as agents of good that facilitated the sweep of democracy across the Middle East last year that became known as the Arab Spring. Users extol over their site’s triumphs against oppressive regimes, often praising Twitter and Facebook for granting their foreign users with a sounding board capable of projecting their voices globally. However, who considers the flipside of this? Does anyone remember the violent riots that ran over London last summer like a steamroller? Because it is my guess that social media had just as big a hand in organizing that movement as it did in Arab Spring, and, judging by this meeting the British Home Office agrees.
The British Home Office held a meeting in the month following last summer’s London riots that brought together officials from Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry to discuss the implications that social media and services such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM) have on criminal behavior. It is the converse of the idea of social media as the lionized advocate for democracy and democratic principles worldwide. Rather, in the case of London in July, social media became the executor of violent crime as rioters created Facebook groups titled “Smash Down Northwich Town” and “Let’s Have a Riot in Latchford”. Both administrators received four years in prison for online incitement in the aftermath of the summer’s events.
It makes sense that such individuals would be punished, but what of the services themselves? Should social networks be held accountable for the actions of their users? After all, they do provide nearly uncensored service to all. There is Option 1, raised by Prime Minister Cameron in his address to Parliament, in which the government might consider disconnecting such services if similar circumstances were to arise in the future, later conceding, however, that the legality of such actions is highly questionable. However, what of Option 2, an internal monitoring by services. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this on Facebook, via the omnipresent “Report this” option next to posts or photos, and users must now certify that material they upload to the site is not pornographic before posting. But is this enough? It seems that Facebook has created itself a loophole out of accountability by mandating that users check such an agreement, yet, as we saw over the summer, inappropriate material falls through the cracks.
So the question arises of how to counter this, or if we should even try to counter it at all. Should there be more stringent implications on a site’s administrators if it is used to promote criminal behavior? And what of stopping it entirely via government intervention? Or is it that Twitter and Facebook have given us this online domain and now it is up to us to rule it as we see fit?
These questions have no easy answer, but as we saw this past summer, social media can be demonized by its users, perhaps necessitating a re-evaluation of such services.