Censoring Social Media Does Not Prevent Riots
Last year Britain suffered the worst civil unrest seen in the country for decades, as riots spread out from London to other cities around the country. Attention at the time focused on the role of technologies such as Blackberry Messenger played in supporting the looting on display, with some politicians calling for social media to be shut down during such social troubles.
As a libertarian I'm very much opposed to such actions, so it was with much relief when researchers found that social media plays a positive role in riots rather than a negative one.
This hypothesis has been further supported by new research. The paper, titled “Social Media Censorship in Times of Political Unrest – A Social Simulation Experiment with the UK Riots,” suggests that far from helping calm civil unrest, if governments were to censor social media it would actually fan the flames further.
This is according to two European researchers who built a computer model showing that high levels of censorship (e.g., Hosni Mubarak’s decision to turn off Egypt’s Internet) result in sustained periods of violent activity, whereas no censorship leads to spiky periods of violent outbursts broken up by relatively long periods of relative calm.
It's timely as of course the same tools many claim were responsible for the liberation of people during the Arab Spring, are portrayed by western governments as a threat to the values of freedom and peace they supposedly stand for.
The authors attribute their findings (albeit computer-generated) largely to the idea of “vision,” which plays a pivotal role in sociological experiments trying to determine how individuals act during times of protest or rioting. Put simply, less censorship means more vision, so citizens (called “agents” in the computer model) know what’s going on around them and can act in more uniform and rational manners. More censorship means less vision, so citizens are less aware of their surroundings and tend to act randomly.
It is of course worth remembering that social media is merely a tool for communication and sharing. Riots happened before social media arrived and the underlying reasons for such mass actions have remained much the same down the years.
A Guardian analysis of individuals arrested during the U.K. riots in August, for example, found that rioters were overwhelmingly “young, poor and unemployed” (read “more disenfranchised than ordinary citizens”). And even before the advent of social media, non-violent protests have been the norm in the relatively stable and rich United States for decades, with only minimal violence breaking out during the Occupy protests that took hold in dozens of cities nationwide during 2011.