By now, plenty has been written around the circumstances of the London riots. Like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, social media has been credited, or in this case blamed, with aiding swift and active civil unrest. Criminal or political — or both — the “social media riots” of London have shown how almost any location is susceptible to the rapid assembly these networks afford a younger generation.
And it’s moving increasingly closer to home. As early as today, Philadelphia has had to impose a curfew on teenagers who used social media to organize criminal “flash mobs.” With an uncertain economic climate and a bleak job market, there’s reason to be concerned.
Rather than waiting to see how this might play out at home, the London riots in particular raise some larger questions about social media policy and government’s involvement. Police have attributed the rioters’ organizational speed primarily to BlackBerry’s messenger service (BBM) and Twitter. These kinds of technologies used to be law enforcement’s leg up, and now they’re competing against its most adept users. The law does require these platforms to work with government agencies when criminal activity is suspected, but to what extent? BlackBerry has already felt the wrath of hackers for agreeing to help police in identifying potential rioters. But when it comes to public safety, who decides how far is too far? And can we, as users, trust our social platforms?
If our government and social networks start addressing these questions together preemptively, rights to freedom of speech, privacy, and assembly might not have to be so swiftly compromised in times of disruption. Consider the Pentagon’s recent request for research proposals that would help them better monitor conversation in the Middle East. This recognizes that social listening is an effective way to understand and track political rebellion.
But can our government listen more effectively in the social space at home to stop the “social media riots” from occurring here? The amount to which our government is already listening to our social networks at home is unclear, although you can be sure they are. But just as the London riots reveal, the masses are increasingly demanding transparency. In advertising, we continually tell our clients that social media best practices require transparency, authenticity and engagement. Those who don’t engage don’t control the conversation. And those who listen engage most effectively.
So do governments need to become better social listeners? If government services and officials opened up more channels of discussion online, would this help relieve some issues of transparency for the masses? Would we feel like we had more access to our political system? In a more perfect world, could we even find ways to curate effective and actionable political protests online so it never escalates to violence?
Democracy is, by definition, the governing voice of the masses, and social networks are the new soapboxes. If our government isn’t listening and engaging, is it doing its job?