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Social media is a force for good during difficult days

By Craig Elder, Special to CNN
  • Politicians rushing to regulate social media should consider its positive benefits
  • Social media was often the fastest way to find out where UK riot incidents were taking place
  • One politician suggested an enforced "blackout" of social media sites during future disturbances

Craig Elder is a digital strategist at a leading media agency in the UK. He spent four years working for the Conservative Party as its first Head of Social Media.

(CNN) -- Days of introspection and debate -- in both press and parliament -- have inevitably followed the greatest civil unrest this country has seen since the early 1980s. Politicians and journalists seem to understand that the underlying problems are complex and can't be fixed overnight.

Sadly, this cautious approach hasn't extended to their attempts to understand how relatively small numbers of rioters and looters were able to leave police forces across England looking so flat-footed in their response.

For that, the finger of blame was pointed immediately at social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Blackberry Messenger (BBM) was also implicated. The argument went that it was thanks to these services that the rioters were able to organise themselves so quickly and effectively.

And, on the surface of things, it's a tough argument to defeat. One of the side-effects of the web's ubiquity is an undoubted "acceleration of everything" that has the potential to extend from setting up last-minute drinks to celebrate a friend's birthday to the organisation of criminal activity.

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And, as a result, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that the relevant authorities will investigate "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

So the government's approach is clear: targeted action taken against individuals suspected of criminal behaviour. But it has still drawn fierce criticism from the tech-savvy (who claim the proposal is unworkable) and civil liberty-conscious (who, as ever, fear any regulation of the internet at all).

However, other politicians have been less measured than Cameron. Labour MP David Lammy, whose Tottenham constituency was the first to be affected by the violence, called on Blackberry to close their BBM service until the streets were made safe.

Conservative MP Louise Mensch went even further, suggested an enforced "blackout" of social media sites during future disturbances, arguing that it would stop inaccurate rumours about trouble (in no short supply on the evenings of the riots) spreading online.

But how could removing communications tools from the overwhelming majority of law-abiding citizens in a moment of crisis possibly be the answer? It is exactly this sort of reactionary, ill-thought-out nonsense that we should be on our guard against in the weeks and months ahead.

Politicians in such an apparent rush to regulate social media would also do well to recognise the immense positive contribution made by these sites both during and in the aftermath of the riots, as communities looked for information, reassurance and a positive way to reclaim their streets.

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Indeed, one of the most striking images to appear in the wake of the violence -- that of defiant brooms being held aloft by volunteers attending a Twitter-organised "riot cleanup" in Clapham Junction -- would not even exist were it not for social media.

And anyone who followed the riots live on Twitter will be tell you how terrible a "blackout" would have been -- not least because it was often the fastest way to find out where incidents were taking place. After all, it wasn't just our police who were off the pace: the media also struggled to keep up.

While Ms. Mensch is right to say that rumours were flying around on the nights of the riots, they were massively outweighed by a flood of correct information that helped to keep people informed and, most importantly, safe.

Police forces have also been making full use of social media, posting pictures of suspects on photo sharing sites for quick identification, and using Twitter to report from the courts as sentences are passed, providing followers with the knowledge that action is already being taken against a violent minority.

But one suspects that much of the positive contribution made by social media sites and their community-minded users will be conveniently ignored by those looking to boost their profile by taking aim at a convenient scapegoat.

Let's hope policy can rise above rhetoric, and we don't see law-abiding users of these hugely powerful communication tools -- which have been an overwhelming force for good during some difficult days -- being made to suffer because of the actions of an irresponsible few.

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