An Open Letter To The British Prime Minister About Social Media

Dear David Cameron,


I'm afraid you may be missing the point.

I appreciate that the past week has been a difficult one for you and for many people in the U.K. Having left your fair shores just a few days before the violence began, I, like many others, am deeply saddened by the news coming from the streets of London, from Manchester, from Liverpool.

But the riots were not caused by social media. And your suggestion that banning individuals from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook might prevent future riots is not only misguided and inaccurate, it is dangerous.

The fact that Facebook was nearly 40 years in the future didn't prevent 34 people from being killed in the Watts riots. The absence of Twitter didn't prevent a fresh wave of L.A. riots following Rodney King's infamous beating in 1992.

From one angle, you are right. You are right that communication is essential for mobs to come together, and that social media sites are channels for communication. Where you miss the point is that the riots themselves are a form of communication. They are a violent, inappropriate overflowing of rage, frustration, confusion, and powerlessness. They are, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the voice of the unheard."



What do you think will happen if you take away one of the few communication platforms for people who are unheard?

Yes, those who commit crimes must face the punishment. We have all been sickened by the image of Asyraf Haziq being robbed by those pretending to help him; we all want to see the people responsible held to account. But, while social media removes a measure of organizational friction, its absence doesn't quench the opportunistic cruelty of the perpetrators.

Please understand, you're not alone in imbuing social media with a causative power. Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry Messenger... the technologies at our disposal are still so new that they seem almost magical. But they are no more magical than the telephone or even our own voices -- which can be used to manipulate, to abuse, to elevate, or to inspire. Yes, as you say, the "free flow of information can be used... for ill." But that information includes text messages, and classified ads, and short-wave radio, and photocopied leaflets. None of these is the reason for the ill. Public communication tools provide sunlight for the seeds of dissatisfaction, unrest, and violence within us -- but make no mistake, those seeds must first be within us if they are to grow.

And if the seeds within us are caring, and compassion, and empathy, social media will provide sunlight for those: it will connect those who want to clean up after the riots, it will bring together the oppressed in Egypt and the Student Volunteer Army in my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Social media is neither good nor bad, but how we use it makes it so.

Prime Minister, the call before you is to distinguish between causality and correlation, between medium and content, between speech and action. If you'll forgive me a quote from a maudlin American movie, it is Michael Douglas' call for advanced citizenship in "The American President": "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the 'land of the free.' "

I wish you grace and wisdom in handling the difficulties your country faces. With respect,
Kaila Colbin

3 comments about "An Open Letter To The British Prime Minister About Social Media".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, August 12, 2011 at 1:35 p.m.

    Excellent. Well stated.

  2. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, August 14, 2011 at 1:28 p.m.

    In addition open social platforms provide government agencies a view into the communication in and around these actions. This can be invaluable.

  3. Bruce May from Bizperity, August 19, 2011 at 4:58 p.m.

    I think those of us who work in and promote social media should be a little cautious in making this argument. The problem for me is that I want to agree with you but I can't help but think that the reality is that social media is in fact a powerful tool that can support and expand social protests. I believe that Twitter and Facebook have played a key role in the Arab Spring. The bigger question is why do Western authorities react so negatively to the use of social media in our own countries when they promote its use by those who are fighting for their freedom in the Middle East? Of course it's easy to say that the London riots were just pure lawlessness gone wild. But can we really argue that this is not driven by the same underlying issues that stem from high unemployment, lack of education, etc. etc.? Moreover, what happens when we do have large scale social protests because of these same kinds of issues? I agree that David Cameron should rethink his reaction but it might surprise you to know that the US military is studying ways to control (i.e. shut down) social media just in case we have similar problems. The fact that the US military seems to think that it is perfectly alright for it to consider intervening in domestic affairs shows you just how far to the extreme right this kind of thinking has gone. We all need to address these issues as part of a much larger conversation before the future forces our hand and we, as a nation, act out in ways that we may regret.

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