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26 August 2011

UK government rethinks position on social media

Tim Gibbon, director Elemental By Tim Gibbon

UK Home Secretary Theresa May, Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and police representatives met up with police, social networks and telecoms providers on Thursday to discuss the use of social media and the impact it had upon rioting earlier this month.

It has resulted in an embarrassing outcome for the government, with its calls to control communications across social media in times of civil unrest, lead by government officials such as Louise Mensch, Conservative MP, who was outspoken (ironically on Twitter on the position the government should take. The meeting organised to discuss the riots (estimated to have caused £100 million worth of damage) has only highlighted the lack of understanding of social media amongst the government.Number 10 Downing Street front door

Consider the governments line about China heavy restriction of the Internet. Not in any way to compare human rights issues in China with the London riots, but the desire to restrict and control the internet has strong similarities. Perhaps conveniently focusing on the negative aspect of the riots being fuelled by a minority, and yet used for good with the public coming together to organise mass clean ups and offer support.

Also, another a key point is that social media has also provided evidence for court and tips to the police about what areas to stay out of or to get to. It has also been a useful tool for the police to identify people. As an example, Metropolitan Police’s Flickr album to appeal for the publics help identifying looters had more than 545,000 views in a four-day period.

Earlier on Thursday, The Open Right Group was one organisation from a collaborative protest that wrote a letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May to express concerns of the government potential action.

On Thursday the organisation counted three and a half thousand people signing its petition to highlight the three major concerns they expressed to the Home Secretary:

  • The merits of stopping people communicating using social media with decision made in haste
  • Ensure that government meetings with social networks are transparent and published for everyone to see
  • Review of proposals to undergo a multi-stakeholder process before decisions are made

The Home Office released a short statement later on Thursday confirming the aforementioned attendance, with plenty of meat left from the bone as to what transpired other than building upon relationships.

“The Home Secretary, along with the Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with ACPO, the police and representatives from the social media industry. The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour,” commented a Home Office spokesperson.

The government clearly underestimated the complexities that social media environments possess, and didn’t realise the significance of the social networks they sought to block were in fact instrumental in organising clear-ups or communities for example. Indeed a common sense view would be that if a government prevented publics from using social networks, it would be blocking them from communicating worthwhile and useful information.

This could be critical between colleagues, friends and family in times where these technologies can be of benefit to countless law abiding citizens. Now the government has more insight into the digital environments that are available with a sizeable clean up bill and headlines for the history books as a reminder; time will only tell if will it be able to think beyond using them to aim political messaging and campaigning, instead opting to understand how they truly impact society.

Possible outcomes of switching off social media

Diagram of the pros and cons of switching of social media in times of civil unrest

Categories: Technology, Social media, News, Marketing

Tags: Home Office, Theresa May, The Home Secretary, Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, ACPO, The Open Right Group, social media, social networks, RIM, Blackberry, Twitter, Facebook

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