In the wake of the UK riots, various British government ministers have – hypocritically, I think – “called out” social networking sites for failing to prevent riot organization via Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry. Representatives of these companies are due to meet today with Theresa May, the British home secretary, where they are expected to defend their positions staunchly. And rightly so.
There are many reasons that social networking sites should be free from the threat of emergency government shutdown, many of which are already ping-ponging across the web. A sampling:
- Social networks actually function to dispel rumors that might otherwise spread. This is a kind of techie version of Ashutosh Varshney’s theory of interethnic civil society organizations that serve to disseminate credible knowledge and debunk hearsay in times of heightened tension. This function may counteract or even overwhelm the effects on overall violence levels of social network-aided riot coordination.
- Social networks may not actually have facilitated riot coordination at all. Empirically, it seems that the most tweets occurred after, not before an event (though the trend holds less well as the riots continued).
- Social networks, if effectively monitored, can give police forces clues as to the intentions of key individuals and specific logistical plans for congregation. That such networks have only been lightly monitored in the past is due to the failure of “law and order” to adapt quickly to new media, not to an inherent security threat posed by social networks themselves. Some British youth are actually being brought up on stiff charges for inciting riots that never even materialized (see my last blog touching on elasticity of marginal cost of riot participation). Police might even get one step ahead for once: MIT’s Senseable City Lab has been able to triangulate each cell phone in a city on a real-time basis, to create continuously updating spatial histograms of population congregations (like this Madonna concert in Rome).
- Social networks like Twitter and Facebook already monitor messages and remove “credible threats of violence.”
Perhaps most pertinent – if hackneyed- argument, though, is the caution that democratic governments impinge on freedom of speech at the risk of losing their own legitimacy. The definition of “emergency” is a slippery thing, and “emergencies” have a tendency to stretch out longer than originally intended. Just ask Bashar al-Assad, whose country until April of this year had been in “emergency rule” for 48 years, ever since the truly tumultuous months following Syria’s secession from a short-lived political union with Egypt. And if you think Arab governments are the exception to the rule, think of the state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in India to avoid her own corruption trial. Ireland’s state if emergency of 1939 was not lifted until 1974. Hitler’s 1933 state of emergency suspended the Weimar Republic indefinitely. Turkey lived in various states of martial law or emergency from 1923 to 2002. Malaysia has a kind of de facto state of emergency in effect today. And that’s just to name a few.
Once they are comfortably ensconced, states of emergency are notoriously difficult to get lifted without some outside nudge. It took the ongoing bloody revolution to overturn Syria’s (and even then, the government begrudged the right to nonviolent political protest without permission). Too little too late, as it seems. Hitler’s of course was ended only by defeat in WWII. Turkey’s was lifted only because of the EU was dangling the carrot of potential EU accession pending democratic reforms. Gandhi lifted India’s emergency herself, confident that she wouldn’t need it to win the next election. Wrongly so, it turned out, as states of emergency are usually just as unpopular with the people as they are tempting to impose among embattled politicians. Gandhi’s example served as a lesson in what not to do for other would-be autocrats.
But this rant isn’t really about states of emergency. It’s about hypocrisy. It was just in 2009-2010 that the Western world dubbed Iran’s election protests the “Twitter Revolution.” Sure, it came after what media pundits had already dubbed Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution,” but anti-Communist sentiment is stale in the West, and anti-Islamic government sentiment is on the rise. Besides, who cares about Moldova when Ahmadinejad is undermining US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? The US government reportedly urged Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance to keep up political pressure, and Gordon Brown made the absurd claim that social networks basically made mass government atrocities impossible to carry out in modern times. Someone tell the residents of Homs, where hundreds of apparent government summary executions have had to be uncovered by a UN probe months after the fact. As one blogger noted (speaking of Iran), the Revolution will not be tweeted. And neither, apparently, will its brutal crackdown.
That hasn’t stopped folks from dubbing each and every one of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings a “Twitter Revolution” or a “Facebook revolution.” When popular unrest shakes the Arab world, Western media outlets automatically lend it all the credence of self-sovereignty: the People have spoken. Sure, Arab-world protesters were only able to speak in the first place thanks to our technological innovations. Sure, their movements’ strategy is entirely cut-and-pasted from the pages of our great thinkers’ books. Nevertheless we salute you, Western wannabes.
But when “Twitter-driven” popular unrest shakes the developed world, hold up now – now social networks are a threat to public order. I know, I know, in the first instance, participants are protesters, in the second case rioters. In the first case, they are politically motivated, in the second economically. Or so we’re told. These terms seem to correspond to the grievance and greed terms that have been figuring so frequently on this blog lately, and somehow to equate respectively to “justified” and “depraved.” Of course things aren’t that clear-cut in reality. The Tottenham riots began with the felt need for “justice,” before spinning out of control. And economists like Acemoglu would argue that democratic transitions are essentially a popular bid for economic redistribution.