British Prime Minister David Cameron joins the long line of powerful men who totally miss the point of social media. In the wake of the London riots, he has threatened to ban people convicted of rioting from social networks. Oh, David.

Banning those convicted of crimes from accessing social networks (the idea being that they used such access to organize criminal activities) is no different than banning the same criminals from accessing goose quills and ink pots! It will have zero effect on crime, aside from criminalizing social media itself.

Additionally, Cameron told Parliament he is going to hold meetings with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry's parent company Research in Motion, "to discuss their responsibilities in this area." He added that broadcasters have a "responsibility" to hand in their footage of the riots. Mr. Cameron seems very concerned about responsibility. Well, other people's responsibility anyway.
The most egregious flaw in Cameron's latest misfire is his clear lack of understanding that social media, regardless of the froth-flecked eructations of both its detractors and its partisans, is nothing more than another communications tool. Each such tool has its specific shape and distinct implications but in the end it allows people to speak to other people. What Cameron is pursuing is, in effect, a ban on free speech.

What makes it worse, however, is the way Cameron has proposed the move to the British parliament. This is how the Guardian characterized his announcement. (The italics are mine.)

"David Cameron has told parliament that in the wake of this week's riots the government is looking at banning people from using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they are thought to be plotting criminal activity."

What Cameron appears to be proposing is the creation of a thought crime. (I forget. Where was Orwell from?)

Additionally, Cameron told Parliament he is going to hold meetings with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry's parent company Research in Motion "to discuss their responsibilities in this area." He added that broadcasters have a "responsibility" to hand in their footage of the riots. Mr. Cameron seems very concerned about responsibility. Well, other people's responsibility anyway.

This sort of news is bad enough when it comes out of Zimbabwe or China, but you rather expect it. To see it issuing from the yap of the British prime minister is just depressing.

The Riots and How to Misunderstand Them

Misunderstanding the role of social media in the London riots is par for the course. An intelligent, credible argument may exist out there somewhere, but I haven't seen it. And if I haven't seen it, chances are, neither have most people. (If you have, give it.)

Instead, our public discourse on the riots consists of two equally preposterous narratives, fighting like dogs over the carcass of British civic life.

  1. The riots are a political expression of economic and racial dissatisfaction, a function of justice denied.
  2. It's the immigrants.


London Riots 2011 - Raw Footage of Mob Attacking... by mediafreaks3d

These are both ridiculous oversimplifications and provide an unfortunate object lesson in how social media is as capable of disappointing us in our time of need as any corporate news behemoth. The reason is the very one that Cameron appears unable to understand: people power social media. In many cases, social media is capable of leveraging the best we have to offer, but sometimes it craps in the yard. Why? Again, it is powered by people, and people, though often magnificent, are sometimes dumb as posts.

Among the privileged, white, well-healed members of the digerati, the riots - because some of the rioters are dark-skinned - must be sociological equations. The very notion that people can't be simple thugs because they're black or Arabic is as asinine - and much more patronizing - as the notion that they must be because they are. If you throw a brick, you may be making a political statement. If you do so to break a window and get your mitts on a handful of iPhones, you're a crook. It would take a bona fide Prisoner of Sociology to argue otherwise.

On the other hand, the notion that the riots were caused by the presence of immigrants is equally untenable. Neither is it born out by the country's history. One of the earliest recorded riots, the "St. Scholastica" riot of 1315 was a booze-fueled fight of townies versus students; the Bawdy House riots (1668) centered on whorehouses; you can probably figure out what the London Gin riots of 1743 were about on your own and Spitalfields (1769) was a labor riot. In fact, when foreigners and minorities were involved in riots it was almost always as victims, as on Evil May Day (1517), in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots (1780), in the anti-Dissenter Priestly Riots (1791) and the Notting Hill riots (1958). It wasn't until the Brixton riots of 1981 that anyone dark-complected was as likely to be seen throwing a brick than getting hit by one.

If you are unable, or unwilling, to allow your immigrants to become - and insist they do become - integral parts of the society in which they live, that lack of investment, in time, will tell.

Stupid Ideas Are Contagious

My point is simple: the riots are not. You can neither explain away the actions of criminal rioters with a psalter of half-understood free-university concepts, nor can you reduce their actions to congenital deficiencies in their race or culture. (In case I wasn't being clear, the former means you're a bourgie twat; the latter, you're a hen-witted bigot.)

This "folk sociology" has also infected the attitude of the British government, and its leader, toward the tools the rioters (not to mention everyone else in the United Kingdom) use to talk to one another: social networks. Prime Minister Cameron's proposal is as lunkheaded as any of the cartoonish explanations for the riots you can find on those selfsame networks.

Now, genius I may be, but I'm not beyond learning something new or even changing my mind. So, if you have a different point of view - on Cameron's actions, on the use and abuse of social media or even on the riots as a whole - have at it. Of course, I don't have to remind you, of all people, to be a mensch, now do I? Naturally, I don't.

Cameron graphic by Donkey Hotey