Don’t shoot the messenger!

If it’s in the Middle East, we get media coverage that trumpets the triumph of social media in the hands of young people, creating an Arab Spring that topples dictators and kick-starts a revolution.  “Demonstrators” in the streets are defined as a good thing, and the social media that helped fuel the fires was applauded. Now fast forward to August, and suddenly in London, youths are using social media to gather and demonstrate against police action in the death of a young black man in north London. But the participants get called “rioters”.  By the end of that same weekend, all over London and in several other metropolitan areas in England, social media is being used by “criminal gangs” hell bent on a looting rampage.

UK politicians, the judicial system and mainstream media climb onto their high horses and start a campaign against “feral youth”, “criminal under-classes” and “gangs of agitators”. Is anyone but me noticing just how similar all this moral outrage is to the response of the dictatorships in the Middle East to their demonstrators? Some of the rhetoric being levelled at youth in England could be interchanged with the language being used by the Syrian regime.

While there is a serious debate to be had about the causes of the demonstrations, riots and looting, and whether there are any similarities in motivations between the Arab Spring demonstrators and the London rioters, what I also find interesting is how the establishment’s views of social media change so quickly.  Social media users in the Arab world are called “brave”, “spirited”, “irrepressible”, and the regimes that tried to shut down the internet, censor facebook, and curtail the mobile phone texting systems are described as reactionary dictatorships.  Yet, within a matter of months, the UK government is talking in the same language about shutting down Blackberry messenger (the communication channel of choice in London’s riots) whenever they deem it “in the public interest” to do so.

A gun is a weapon, whether it is used to keep the peace, or to murder someone. So is social media. To blame the channel for the content of the message, and its affect on the local community, is to miss the whole point. Social media will be used by groups to achieve all sorts of things- from bullying classmates, to sharing photos with loved ones, to organising a picnic or a looting expedition. Get over it, and try to solve the problems that are underlying the demonstrations and riots.

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About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

One Response to Don’t shoot the messenger!

  1. That’s the thing: principles are principles (free speech, free assembly etc). They should only be messed with in the most extreme circumstances.

    The other thing is that these principles operate under the law (and the law operates independently of government).

    Freedom with responsibility (this is the theme we keep hearing from David Cameron).

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