The images of the anarchy in London over recent days are chilling. So too, at first glance, is the fact that the looters and rioters outflanked the Metropolitan Police using social network channels and smart phones. Social media have often been touted as being a force for good, for allowing democracies to flourish, allowing protests against dictatorships to prevail. (And the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 August 2011 carries a story by John Garnaut about the forthcoming trial of businessman Matthew Ng in China that might well see his human and legal rights supported with help from the uncompromising spotlight of the Internet.)
So to learn that there is a dark side to social media, supporting unconstrained violence, is unsettling.
Except. The same quick and tactical access that social media channels gave the rioters and looters also gives the rest of us the same speed of insight into two things: who these people might be, and the broader context for these riots.
Initially, this immediate and harsh clarity is uncomfortable. But this same clarity will force society to consider its actions because those actions are almost instantly visible. It’s not clear that calls for calm were communicated by advocates for reason, law and order to counteract the calls for violent action, but those calls can in principle be made.
The police can, of course, learn to coordinate their response tactics using the same channels to complement their more traditional communications. And presumably if a group of activists Tweet their intentions, the authorities can Follow them.
But that sense of being visible to peers, authorities, relatives and friends, to those who have power and to those who we respect (if they’re not the same thing) will put everyone in the future on notice. It’s just harder to get away with stuff if everyone’s watching you. And the positive power of communities seeking to influence policy (not throw rocks), highlight deficiencies (not differences) and not brainwash with dogma (the alternative argument is easier to find) can prevail just as easily. #londoncleanup and #riotcleanup are evidence of that.