Amidst widespread calls from MPs, David Cameron has pledged to investigate the possibility of turning off social networks during times of crisis, lumping Britain in with some rather unsavory company.
The U.K. has long criticized countries like China, Iran and Libya for censoring the web and clamping down on dissent, which appears incredibly hypocritical to the rest of the world if he then proceeds to do the same thing on his own turf. Opinion pieces in international newspapers have already started popping up with headlines like “what goes around, comes around.”
The Telegraph quotes one commentator in China’s official Communist Party mouthpiece — People’s Daily — going even further. The commentator says “The West have been talking about supporting internet freedom, and oppose other countries’ government to control this kind of websites, now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit [of their complacency] and they can’t complain about it.”Chief among the claims by those who want to see more controls on freedom of speech on the web is that social networks amplify panic, spread misinformation and cause already-stretched police communications channels to be overloaded by people worried about some rumor they’ve read online.
That might be a valid complaint, and even the most synergistic of social media gurus would have to admit — between creating engaging integrated solutions, no doubt — that Twitter wasn’t exactly a paragon of truth and accuracy during the riots, but you can hardly pin the blame solely on social media when rolling news channels like BBC News 24 and Sky News are running looped footage of burning buildings, overlaid with interviews with those who’d lost property and possessions in the looting. It might have been passed through an editorial filter, but continually presenting the worst of the footage creates a very skewed representation of reality.
Hitwise reckons that 3.4 million people in the U.K. visited Twitter’s homepage on Aug. 9, the day with the most hype around the riots, compared with numbers from Sky News and BBC News 24 of 9.2 million and 13.1 million, respectively. With so much of a greater a reach, clearly the scaremongering potential of traditional media is far higher than that of social networks. We’ve seen that in the past, with innocent people targeted by vigilante mobs after the News of the World ran a campaign to “name and shame” paedophiles.
On the flip side, social networks allow for others to debunk claims, rapidly establishing what the facts about a situation are with thousands of eyes on the ground. One cyclist in Bristol was even taking requests from Twitter to go around, fact-checking whether buildings were in fact damaged or not. It’s hard for traditional news infrastructure to cope with situations where violence is springing up in multiple locations simultaneously, but it’s trivial to set up filters for social media that cut through the rumour to deliver eyewitness accounts. Filtering out any tweet with the word “apparently” in would be a good start.
So if we’re turning off social media for “safety”, why aren’t we shutting down television networks at the same time? Why aren’t politicians demanding that news channels, with their greater reach and potential to panic the public, be turned off during exceptional circumstances, too? After all, it’s all for the safety of the public. Right?