Following the recent riots in the UK, many commentators and MPs are blaming the role of technology and social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, for inciting and spreading the vandalism and looting. Most fingers have been pointed at BlackBerry, with its ‘private’ mode of communication, as the principle culprit. David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham where the trouble first flared up, tweeted that he thought BlackBerry Messager (BBM) should be suspended for set periods of time when required as it was clearly inciting unrest.
More and more powers are now being called for to regulate and monitor the role of social media and technology. Home Secretary, Theresa May, is in discussion with Facebook, Twitter and RIM (maker of BlackBerry) about their responsibilities in not fuelling rioting and other criminal behaviour. In response to the criticism of BBM, RIM has said that it will engage with and assist the local communications operators, police authorities and regulatory officials in any way it can.
Meanwhile this week two men in Britain have been sentenced to an incredible four years in jail for trying to stir up last week’s riots via Facebook. This sentence was meted out because the men had posted messages on the social networking site calling for their friends to join in the unrest. The two men, Jordan Blackshore and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, later said it was just a joke and no one had turned up anyway – just the police to arrest them!
So why were these men jailed for so long when they didn’t actually riot themselves and no rioting broke out as a result of their posts? The Chester Crown Court judges justified the sentence as a ‘deterrent’, designed to dampen the spirits of ‘social media riot ringleaders’ the next time there is an explosion in street violence.
In reality, the rioting was not a coherent, organised conspiracy overseen by ‘social media riot ringleaders’. Social media and technology did not incite the UK riots. Those involved in the vandalism and looting made their own choices and decided for themselves to smash up their local community. They and they alone were responsible for their actions.
The conviction of Blackshore and Sutcliffe-Keenan sets a worrying precedent and shows what can happen when the law draws no distinction between talking about something and actually doing it. The belief that these two men caused a riot only makes sense because the law of incitement blurs the important distinction between acts in the real world and words published online.
This inflation of the category of incitement and the corresponding increase in regulations and policing of social media is truly worrying for anyone interested in free speech and democracy today.