Monday, 8 August 2011

Twitter - Just Like a Phonebox Really

London rioted again last night.  On Thursday the Police shot and killed Mark Duggan in Tottenham.  Riots broke out and shops were burned and looted.  Last night (Sunday) saw a wave of “copycat criminal activity” (Met) across the capital: “Disorder spread to Enfield, Walthamstow and Waltham Forest in north London and to Brixton in the south of the city”. 
Reports from mainstream media (old media) quickly turned to the economic cost, how this could damage the Olympics next year (economics again) and how the trouble is perpetrated by minority groups.  There has been speculation that that some of the people involved were anarchists, and we all know the police don't like anarchists because they asked us to report on any known anarchists just last week (as if having a political belief is criminal).  Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London and Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority said "Obviously there are people in this city, sadly, who are intent on violence, who are looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they're anarchists or part of organised gangs or just feral youth frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers."
You can read more about how the Daily Mail blamed Twitter for the riots here.  I wonder what rioters of the past used to organise levels of greed and criminality?  I guess they might have spoken to each other or maybe used a telephone to call up their mates but, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't recall newspaper reports or police chiefs blaming payphones for the riots.  Twitter, and all social media, is just a means of communicating.  What sort of person you are and who you choose to communicate with is up to you, it has nothing to do with the service provider - just like payphones.   What we need to recognise is that there are a lot of old people who have no idea how the internet works, fear Twitter and Facebook and so put the blame on them rather than tackle real issues. 
What seems to me to be more important is a) why the police were so ineffective b) why is this happening in the first place and c) what the ramifications will be for free speech and our right to protest. 
On the first question, Mayor Boris Johnson issued a statement referring to a "Michael Duggan" - so incompetence goes right to the top!   BBC London's Paraic O'Brien said of the situation in Brixton:
We can only conclude that the police are scared of Brixton "the ghetto", were ill prepared or that the level of unrest was so great that the police had no chance - in which case the press have failed to communicate the level of severity.  

On the second point - the old press (and politicians) seem to have no interest in "why".  Rhetoric such as "outside agitators" and "anarchist groups" upsetting the "hardworking majority" (Tottenham MP David Lammy for example)is not helpful.  Richard Seymour (on Facebook) calls this "Crocodile tears from people who spend a lot of their time screwing over the hard-working majority...The point is to understand that this is an inevitable reaction to police murder, racism, and - more generally - the destruction of working class communities. The point is to get that what's happening can't be reduced to 'yob politics'".

On the third point (the ramifications for free speech and our right to protest): I've already pointed out that Social Media providers cannot be blamed for what users decide to discuss.  Users should also be free to discuss whatever they like, if they disclose criminal activity then they are potentially incriminating themselves but monitoring Twitter to see what people might do...  Can you imagine the police phone-tapping every call made from every telephone and arresting people based on what they insinuated they might do?  I can, sounds a bit Stalinist or reminiscent of the Stasi or Gestapo doesn't it?  Yet when this occurs with Social Media it's OK?  Richard Seymour points out (on Facebook) the police are using rumours (on FB/Twitter) as the basis for a crackdown.  "Cop car parked diagonally on Enfield town pavement while young kid was stopped, searched etc. Vans driving up and down, shops closing in panic."  See photos here.  The danger is not that Twitter can spread rumours of a riot but that rumours of a riot on Twitter reach a far bigger audience when people start seeing arrests, shops closing early and panic setting in in places like Enfield.  I'm sure word will soon spread - through Twitter or by word of mouth, it doesn't matter. 

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