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We all know the rules about how the world works.
In the west, we’re the good guys and live in a free democratic society. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is the enemy, or friends of the enemy, making deals and breaking them, twisting the truth, perpetually preparing a war against the west, hiding weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terrorism.
It’s simple, and it's clean cut. We wonder how people in less advanced countries put up with trigger happy dictators who are so happy to send in the tanks when a protest starts. In 2011 we’ve already seen the amazing phenomenon known as the Arab Spring in which governments in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, and felt proud that these people were empowering themselves with mobile technology and social networking to become more like us – good, not evil.
So what happens when anti-authority protests occur in the west? Who is to blame? More to the point, which social network is to blame?
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Prime Minister David Cameron and the London Riots
Following the apparently unnecessary shooting of a man in a region of North London known for its racial tensions, a series of protests occurred across London between August 6th and 10th, protests that were quickly hijacked by rioters with less interest in police heavy-handedness and more of an eye on causing widespread public disorder. Throw in a dash of arson and looting – later attributed to hoodie-wearing gang members in an attempt to sideline the real issues – and the images of London in chaos were soon to be seen around the world.
What is astonishing about the whole event, however, is the lack of a concerted effort by the authorities to deal with problems on the first night; to address the increasingly unruly behavior before the criminal elements saw the riots as an opportunity to loot and pillage.
For instance, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was on holiday; the Home Secretary (whose remit is law and order) was on holiday; the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was on holiday; the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was on holiday.
Taking a holiday during the summer is fair enough – but with no power structure to deal with the daily riots and a Metropolitan Police force seemingly without the manpower to deal with the trouble, more and more shops and homes were looted and destroyed as the UK press began focusing less on the earlier cited causes of the riots (the police shooting, a cut back in police outreach programs, general economic gloom and job losses) and more on the ring leaders of the criminal activities. This has led to a widespread ignorance of the issues of social decay, unemployment, racial tension, unaccountable police, and a general dislike of the current government and its economic policies - the very things that sparked the original protests.
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Britain is Sick and Social Networks are to Blame
Naturally, social networking – that big demon of society, causing everything from broken marriages to teen suicide to lost workplace productivity – has been blamed as a cause of the troubles. Without it, we are told, the looters would not have been able to organize themselves into fluid groups able to flee at a moment’s notice with a quick message.
David Cameron’s eventual response (after managing to drag himself away from his Italian villa three days after the fact) was heavy-handed, missing the point of the initial protests and generalizing wildly with a statement that included the following:
“There are pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick… We will do whatever is necessary. Nothing is off the table."
Nothing is off the table.
And this is where it gets scary. This is where the proverbial Big Brother starts waving his nose into the letters and emails and text messages of the general populace of the United Kingdom.
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A Heavy Handed Response to Protests - in Great Britain
Rather than call the shots from abroad over the initial days of the incident and direct policing to adopt tactics that would peacefully manage the protests before the looting became widespread (and subsequently copied in other cities) the well-bred David Cameron – a descendant of King William IV – instead seems keen to demonize young unemployed people.
Or to put it another way, the main users of social networks.
So how is this any different from authorities in the Middle East unilaterally blocking Internet access to prevent news from protesters making it onto Twitter and Facebook? While the aims of those involved in the Arab Spring are lauded in the west, those attempting to exercise their right to protest in Britain - a country where protesting is legal - have found themselves sidelined, their issues ignored and their cause hijacked. The riots have been used as an excuse by the UK government to extend the reach of the security services into the lives of individuals who may have no connection to the events.
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How to Get Banned from Facebook
Since the protests were ended (thanks to extra policing shipped in from around the UK) a heavy-handed response from the judiciary has seen people slapped with custodial sentences for receiving looted goods. The government and police have displayed an iron fist, exercising no restraint in cracking down on anything relating to the riots, whether in London or elsewhere in the UK.
For instance, a 22-year-old man create a Facebook page called "The Warrington Riots" one evening while drunk. The next morning he awoke with a hangover, removed the page out of shame yet was still sentenced to four years in prison, thanks to the police monitoring Facebook for any mention of rioting.
How far are we now from forcing social networking services to hand over details of people who may be suspected of being involved in the events based on their recent movements (thanks to services such as "check-in" which displays a Facebook user's current location)?
So: breaches of privacy, infringement of personal networks and the demonizing of a narrow element of society. A sorry state of affairs that could have been avoided if British Prime Minister David Cameron had shown uncharacteristically strong leadership and cut short his holiday just a little earlier.
Instead, we find ourselves living in a world that thinks that the existence of BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook and Twitter caused riots, rather than one in which a group of frustrated and unhappy people took advantage of those services to try to organize themselves into making a stand, only to have their grievances hijacked by greedy criminals that showed the same sort of opportunism that the British Prime Minister has since personally demonstrated.
- Bowcott, Owen. "Facebook riot calls earn men four-year jail terms amid sentencing outcry", http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/facebook-riot-calls-men-jailed
- Pierce, Andrew. "Cameron's royal link makes him a true blue", http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article745903.ece
- Shipman, Tim. "Parts of our society are not broken but sick - the Prime Minister's verdict on Riot UK, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024709/David-Cameron-UK-riots-Parts-society-broken-sick.html
- "England riots: Hackers hit Blackberry over police help", http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14476620
- "Social networks ban for Facebook riot post boy", http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-14556016