THUNDER BAY – TECH – Special to NNL – The civil disorder which recently convulsed Britain served as a stark reminder of the power of social media, which by all accounts played a central role by allowing large, leaderless mobs of miscreants to organize mass violence with a speed which often left London’s well-trained, professional police force totally flat-footed. Now Prime Minister David Cameron is proposing a far-reaching extension of government authority in an attempt to surround and contain the power of social media. At the very least, the measures envisioned by Cameron would give the government the right to monitor social media conversations with an eye to heading off civil disorder. Anyone who doubts the seriousness of these efforts should consider today’s news, reported in the Guardian, that Britain’s vaunted MI5 intelligence agency is helping to crack the encryption on Blackberry messages sent during the riots.
The champions of social media will assert that such measures are simply doomed to fail, because of something intrinsic in the nature of social media itself. In this view social media is a magical stepping-stone to liberty, a many-headed hydra which expresses the will of the masses with something approaching impunity. But social media is just as likely to be a tool of state authority (through surveillance) as it is the means of undermining it. More importantly, even democratic governments have no option except to begin monitoring social media, simply because no state (even in its most benign form) can tolerate any challenge to its authority.
Social media advocates might argue, rightly, that social media is in itself morally neutral, like the printing press, a tool that can be whatever people make of it. There is certainly nothing intrinsically opposed to law and order in the nature of social media, which is for the most part a tool to allow humans to do what we do best: chatting, mingling, meeting people, playing games, passing the time, and so on.
All of these activities are innocuous, but even a democratic state has to sit up and take notice of its potential for more violent applications. No state — even the most pacifist utopia — can countenance any individual or group outside the state employing violence, be they professional criminals, casual mobs, vigilantes, saboteurs, rebels, or anyone else. Thus we take it for granted that law enforcement officials have the right (after the appropriate legal procedures) to eavesdrop on phone conversations between criminals plotting crimes. In the same vein, every government with the resources will almost certainly begin monitoring social media to spot threats to civil order before they explode.
This will be easier than eavesdropping on phone conversations because so much social media content exists in the public, rather than private, arena. And frankly there is also a good chance that social media companies like Facebook will reach accommodations with governments giving them full access to even “private” information (covered by yet another series of small-print revisions to their privacy agreements, which seem to be generally ignored by users). Once this wall is breached, social media is either transformed from a means of organizing protests into a tool for crushing them (as officials gain access to photos, contacts, chat logs, ISP data, and other sensitive information) or is simply neutered, as activists come to treat it with distrust.
The trend is already underway in places like Egypt, Syria, and China. In Egypt, the military junta which currently governs the country is using social media to identify critics who are then charged with crimes and locked up; this weekend brought the news that one such critic, Asmaa Mahfouz, was arrested and placed on trial by a military tribunal on trumped-up charges of inciting violence with a Facebook post. In February, The New York Times reported that Syria’s brutal regime lifted a ban on Facebook and YouTube — but human rights activists warned that “the government might have lifted the ban to more closely monitor people and activity on social networking sites.” In Iran in 2009, dissidents warned that the secret police were using social media to spread disinformation and sow discord between activists.
None of this necessarily means that social media is doomed as a tool for organizing political dissent: the technological game of cat-and-mouse between hackers and governments continues, and social media is evolving so quickly that security forces will be hard-pressed to keep up. But as the riots in Britain demonstrated, even the most benign governments will have every reason to try.
(c) 2011 MediaPost Communications
Policing Social Media: It’s Inevitable by Erik Sass originally appeared in Online Media Daily on August 15, 2011.