Social Media: Voice of the People or Incitement to Violence?

During what has come to be called the Arab Spring, protestors and revolutionaries across North Africa and the Middle East made significant use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to plan, organize, communicate, and subvert state attempts to censor their activities and shut down communications. The use of mobile phones to engage on social media platforms, in particular, proved exceptionally difficult for state agencies to control.

Social Media Is Great!

Most commentators on the situation, and particularly on the successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, have recognized the important role social media played. Many have praised it as a vital way to give a voice to populations that have historically been silenced by repressive regimes.

While the outcome remains to be seen in countries such as Libya and Syria, and the long-term results of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are unknown, one thing is certain: social media has been instrumental in allowing activists and revolutionaries to connect with each other and organize their activities. And for this, it has been largely praised throughout the Western democracies.

Social Media Is Terrible!

Contrast this to the response to social media’s role in the recent disturbances across England. 3 nights (as of this writing) of rioting across London and its suburbs have spread into Liverpool and Birmingham. Rioters have used social media to inform each other of where police are active and to organize coordinated actions. As a result, many commentators have called for the government to shut down Twitter and Facebook to prevent rioters from communicating with each other.

Does this not seem like a double standard? In the Arab Spring, social media is praised as a tool of democracy. In the UK, it’s condemned as an incitement to violence.

While it is easy to contrast the two groups of activists/rioters (activists were generally peaceful and had legitimate political goals while the rioters are acting violently and destructive with no apparent goal beyond causing chaos), the root problems behind the unrest in both cases are strikingly similar: a large pool of economically disadvantaged and socially disaffected youths who see little hope for meaningful change by working within the established system.

Social Media Is…?

This is not meant as a defense of the rioters by any means. Particularly because they do live in a democracy, their anger and energies could be much better spent through large-scale non-violent protests. But are the different reactions to social media’s role based more on where events are happening than on what those events are? Is it really a case of “revolution good” vs. “rioting bad?” or is it more about “over there good” vs. “over here bad?”

What do you think? Should Western governments have the legal power to shut down social networks for purposes of national security? Or is social media a legitimate way for the voice of the people to be expressed in a way that should be beyond government censorship and control?