United Kingdom

There's a Hashtag Goin' On


When social disorder rears its head, the political class usually offers two responses: more policing and more welfare. (These tend to be presented as radically opposed social visions, though you can easily read "more policing" as "the sort of welfare administered by a prison" and "more welfare" as "the sort of policing performed by a social worker.") In his statement to the House of Commons on the riots that have swept his country, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a policy from the police-state side of the spectrum:

Yes, this is a photoshop.

Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media.

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

And how exactly would the authorities "stop" the people they "know" are using social media "for ill" without restricting or surveilling the users acting "for good"? Answer: They can't. This would be an attack on the speech and privacy of everyone in the United Kingdom, not just the people who burn buildings and rob shops.

It is certainly true that the rioters have used social media to organize themselves. The difference between their free-flowing communications and the cops' much more centralized system makes it clear just how dramatically a hierarchy can be outperformed by a network. But it takes an especially stunted mindset to see that contrast and conclude that everyone needs to be herded into a hierarchy. Maybe, just maybe, a decentralized problem demands a decentralized response.

We've already seen several spontaneous examples of such a response. Ordinary people organized community cleanups quickly and efficiently using the same networks employed by the rioters. Civilians also used social media for self-defense—and I don't just mean the neighbors who banded together to protect their communities while Cameron's cops were being so ineffective. How many people looked at those rapidly updated maps of riot activity and changed their movements accordingly? Wouldn't it make more sense to build on such successes than to lock up the tools that made them possible?

If social media made it easier to riot, they also made it easier to survive the riots, and they did so at a time when the institutions that were supposed to ensure survival were in disarray. It's no surprise that people like Cameron would respond to the failure of centralized authority by calling for yet more centralization of authority. But if his suggestion becomes a concrete proposal, I hope the rest of Britain won't let itself be stampeded into saying yes.