It’s been an odd kind of year for the reputation of social media. It all started so well. Back in the first few months of 2011, social media – Facebook, Twitter, Blackberry messenger – were being touted as tools for spreading democracy and overthrowing dictators in the Middle East.
Then came the riots. Suddenly the very same social media networks found themselves in the dock on account of the role they played in co-ordinating looting across several English cities. In the immediate aftermath of the violence, David Cameron told the Commons he wanted to look into whether it would be possible to ban suspected rioters from using social networking sites, and others have even suggested that social media ought to be shut down altogether during times of crisis.
This issue came up again at today’s Home Affairs Select Committee hearings, with some MPs seemingly unable to understand why the spokesmen for Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry were quite so adamant that shutting down their services altogether would be a mistake. The notion that social media also played a positive role, in terms of allowing the police and conscientious citizens to dispel dangerous rumours during the riots, enabling individuals to inform their family and friends instantaneously that they were safe, and the way it was used to co-ordinate community clean-up operations after the riots, seemed more or less completely anathema to some members of the Committee.
Both the so-called “traditional media” and MPs seem to have particularly relished the opportunity to bash social media in recent weeks. The newspapers, of course, have their own axe to grind, because the internet has undermined their traditional business models. MPs on the other hand have a tendency to be suspicious of social media simply because most of them belong to a generation that grew up without the internet, let alone Facebook and Twitter. Social media can be exclusive as well as inclusive. Their pervasiveness amongst a younger generation makes them all the more scary and intimidating to the older generations.
Ultimately though, there is no case for a knee-jerk reaction. Social media is neutral, and the technology should not be held responsible for the criminality we saw on our streets just over a month ago. As Chief Constable Chris Sims of West Midlands Police told the committee, social media were “a mixed force” during the riots. “There were periods when it was unhelpful, but there were also periods when it was extremely helpful.”
More importantly, if the government were to close down various social networking sites during any future crisis, it would put them in pretty bad company. And it’s very difficult to predict what the effect would be. Suffice it to say, it certainly didn’t work out all that well for Hosni Mubarak.