I've just given an email interview to a journalist from the London Bureau of Xinhua News Agency, China's state media organisation. I ended up writing quite a lot, so I thought I might blog it as well in slighly edited and extended form. I've presented it in the interview format, including the questions that were put to me.
1. How do you describe the role of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, in the recent riots in London and other English cities?
CW: I think it's quite clear that social media have been used to communicate information concerning the riots in various ways. A colleague in UCL Political Science has written a very good blog post on this, so I won't repeat what she has discussed in detail.
It seems that rioters may have used such things as Blackberry messenger and Twitter to organise and plan activity. However, it's also important to stress that Twitter had a very important role in allowing average citizens, who were not taking part in the riots, to share information. They used it to find out what was happening in different areas and to communicate the kind of good news that the mainstream media are not usually interested in. For example a picture of people making tea for policemen, using a riot shield as a tray has been widely tweeted. The tea in time of crisis theme has inspired Operation Cup of Tea a social media-based site of anti-riot testimonies, which is also using tea sales to raise money for post-riot reconstruction. The Twitter hashtag #riotcleanup was used to organise thousands of volunteers, who met to clean up the damage on the day after the riots. It is vital, therefore, that we understand that social media has had an important effect on community cohesion and communication for the great majority of people using it, and that communication about lawlessness was very much a minority activity.
2. Those social media have also played an important role in the riots in Middle East and north Africa, such as in Egypt. So do you think it is becoming a global issue and a challenge to many governments in this age?
CW: I think the the use of social media during the London is a very different issue from that in other places that you mention. These were legitimate uses of the medium to protest about the activity of repressive, non-democratic governments. It was the only way to organise peaceful protest against oppressive regimes when other more official communication channels were closed or monitored by the state. The UK government is democratically elected and not repressive. Even if some of the rioters might not agree with government policies, these are not in essence political, pro-democracy protests. There does appear to be a correlation between the worst areas of rioting and social deprivation, as this map overlay mashup produced by UCL CASA demonstrates. But the London riots are much more like those sometimes experienced in the USA, such as the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992: a way of expressing anger about the conditions in which people find themselves, and an opportunity for looters to engage in straightforward criminal activity.
3. Then how do you think the new media should be regulated? How should we balance regulation and freedom on internet?
CW: I think it is very hard to regulate new media. The internet was, after all, designed to withstand a nuclear strike, and that decentralised structure tends to resist control by nation states. Even when the internet was effectively turned off in Egypt for a few days, people were still able to tweet from their mobile phones, as research undertaken at UCL CASA has shown. Thus I think repression of social media use is entirely inappropriate.
I think that proven acts of criminality co-ordinated on the internet or social media need to be pursued and prosecuted, just as they would if committed in real life. But it can be much harder to find people on social media and thus can be harder to make the connection between an individual in real life and a social media account holder. If really determined to evade detection, people might tweet psuedonymously from PAYG mobile phones, changing SIM cards and social media accounts or handles regularly, or perhaps use Cyber cafes instead of their own computer. We need to use the same high standards of proof of such activity as we would in the real world. How can we be sure, for example, that people who communicate over Twitter are intending to commit a violent, criminal act as opposed to exercising their democratic right to a peaceful meeting or orderly form of protest? Policing therefore has to be as thorough and sensitive online as it would be off-line.
I think calls to shut down social media in times of crisis are entirely misguided. If a suggestion were made that at such times all roads and rail links were closed, rendering thousands of people homeless and stranded, I imagine that most people would think it a dreadful idea. The vast majority of law abiding citizens use Twitter for lawful purposes in such circumstances, perhaps to make sure that loved ones are safe, and find out what is happening to friends or what the situation is in the area where they live, so shutting it would pose more of an inconvenience, and indeed possible risk to the safety, of most people as a result than leaving it open. Such suggestions indicate to me that politicans need urgently to develop a much more complex understanding of the culture of social media, and its possible positive as well as negative uses.