Hey I Know, Class Warfare Isn’t To Blame For Civil Unrest, Social Media Is

by | Aug 14, 2011

In the wake of a week of violent protests in Great Britain–spurred, as they were, by the police killing of Mark Duggan–I’m not surprised to see authorities and mainstream media cast blame in any and all directions, including in the direction of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve long contended that citizens’ media, at its core, is deeply radical and that it’s just a matter of time before “the powers that be” pull the plug. It appears that “the time” is now.

According to The Guardian, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said his government is looking at banning people from using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they are thought to be plotting criminal activity.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media,” said Cameron.

“And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Cameron’s disdain for a media channel he has little control over, led ReadWriteWeb writer Curt Hopkins to claim, “David Cameron joins the long line of powerful men who totally miss the point of social media. What Cameron is pursuing is, in effect, a ban on free speech.”

Of course, some American authorities are walking in lock step with Cameron on this issue. Philadelphia’s mayor is trying to ban “flash mobs”. Yes, flash mobs, those innocent moments of public theater have apparently been co-opted by groups aiming to steal and cause other unlawful disruptions; therefore, they must be stopped.

Also, in Oakland last week, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut-off of subterranean cell phone service in its downtown San Francisco stations in order to prevent a protest.

When people need to assemble and protest they will do so, in free nations and unfree nations. With social media tools, or without. Politicians and their friends in the media business point fingers, deflect blame and fail to ask (much less answer) the tough questions–like why are so many people upset and willing to act out in the first place? And that’s a terrible disservice. Civil society is an agreement between people, not a managed state.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important to ask where the management teams at Facebook and Twitter are on all this. According to Financial Times, Facebook has hundreds of people around the wold tasked with enforcing its ban on co-ordination of violence. The Blog Herald, reports that Facebook has assigned even more people to remove posts that explicitly incite violence, as a reaction to the events in England.

It must be noted that Facebook is partly owned by intelligence interests and radical right investors. For background on this piece of the story, see Tom Hodgkinson’s take down in The Guardian.

Another interesting window into how media works to control the message is on display in this bit from the BBC.

It’s clear from this interview that BBC briefly lost control of the message. “Mr. Howe, we have to wait for the official inquiry,” pretty much says it all. BBC wants to be fair, but a man was murdered. Facts are facts, and the fact is no one wants to report on why these things happen. No one in mainstream media wants to say the police are racist, and the government corrupt. Because they’re school chums who live in the same neighborhoods and belong to the same clubs.

Which brings us back to citizens’ media and the power of push button publishing. Even if you take Facebook and Twitter out of the equation, the internet runs on corporate infrastructure. Sure, you can run your own servers, but the data has to travel over fiber-optic lines owned by AT&T and other telecommunications behemoths.

Communications technology is nothing more than a tool and it can be, and will be, throttled at will. Yet, oppressed people always find a coordinated way to resist. Disarm one tool and another will be instantly adopted. So, let’s stop with the diversions and focus on the problem–lack of economic opportunity is an injustice not only in England, but everywhere. And when lack of opportunity is coupled with police brutality, the powder keg will explode, time and again.

[UPDATE] This is also a topic we discussed during last night’s recording of The BeanCast.