Like so many others, I was shocked, upset by and, yes, ashamed of, the violence and rioting that took place in my hometown of London and in other cities across the U.K. last week. The news reporting, videos, images, tweets and Facebook posts allowed me to follow each ghastly chapter in this three-night horror story that dramatically revealed the deep social unrest lurking beneath the veneer of our traditional British civility and good cheer.
But what I found equally troubling were the many newspaper, TV and online reports that purported that social networks were somehow to blame for the rioting and looting. To this I say “rubbish!”
Yes, Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger were the tools that assisted several troublemakers in fanning the flames – and for that, those people should receive due justice – but these social networks are also the tools that allowed for real-time reporting and civilian journalism. Tweets and posts alerted communities to where trouble was happening, brought us live-from-the-scene images and also fueled the cleanup efforts. In fact, several new Twitter accounts and Facebook pages were spontaneously created to recruit and organize the cleanup – check out @riotcleanup, @cleanup_london, LondonRiotsCleanUp and RiotCleanUp.
My point is this: social networks give people a voice. And more often than not, these voices are put to good, meaningful use. There are many examples from political uprising (Arab Spring), breaking news before the major networks (think the plane landing on the Hudson River), raising money to assist populations following natural disasters or a community supporting the needs of a family experiencing tragedy.
And with this voice comes responsibility. Right now, Britain’s minister is grappling with this very issue. But a crackdown on social networks is not the answer. While I can’t begin to know every angle, nuance and social policy or to even fully understand the causes and triggers of the London riots, what I do know this: don’t confuse the messenger with the message.