Broom Army Demonstrates Social Networking's Positive Side

If individuals can find out what's happening through social networks, why can't the authorities in the same time? Banning mainstream social networking sites will push such communications underground, into one or many of a stream of less well-known sites.

For me, one of the most evocative images to come from the events of the last week in London and around the UK was shared with me by a friend of mine.

Sarah heard about a campaign to clean up her local area, Clapham, after the riot there on Monday night. Along with hundreds of other local residents, armed with brooms, dustpans, gloves, bin sacks and other cleaning implements, Sarah set about putting her local High Street back together again.

Like most of the other people present, Sarah heard about the clean up through Twitter. Overnight on Monday the account @RiotCleanUp was set up on the network. When I saw it at 10am the next morning they were approaching 10,000 followers. There are now nearly 90,000 people following the account and clean-ups have been organised at trouble spots across the UK. I am not aware of similar community action to bring things back to normal in times of trouble since, possibly, The Blitz.

And yet the Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament yesterday that intelligence services and the police were investigating whether it would be "right and possible" to turn off social networks during times of unrest. This suggested course of action comes from the belief that Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger were the main means of communicating where looting was going to take place and encouraging people to congregate.

There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction against social media from the press and, subsequently, the authorities whenever there are problems in our society. It's as if civil disorder never occurred before mass digital communication. But if that's the case, how did the riots happen in 1981 and 1985? What about the Poll Tax demonstrations or battles during the Miners' Strike?

All of the above occurred before the days of mobile phones, let along social media, so isn't it a bit unfair for Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry Messenger et al to be blamed for society's ills?

Surely the reverse was true during the Green Revolution in Iran and this year's Arab Spring, where social media sites allowed locals to share globally what was happening in areas where the traditional press were barred. How would western democracies have reacted if steps were taken by the regimes in those countries to close down social media during their civil unrest? Who decides where to draw the line?

And, clean-up aside, the reverse was true this week. London taxi driver Kevin Portch told me, "Without Twitter I would have driven into all sorts of mire. The @TweetaLondonCab drivers saved each other with updates."

In his blog, Dan Thompson, one of the 'Broom Army', said, "On Monday night, the message in the media (which always needs a clear, simple idea) was that Twitter was a Bad Thing. That it had somehow caused the riots and looting. By Tuesday teatime, Twitter was a Good Thing, bringing back the Blitz spirit. It was neither, of course. It was just a channel."

The truth is that the problems that lead to the unrest were not caused by Twitter, text messaging, instant messaging or any other form of modern communication. Yes, the mob may have grown because of social media, but so many other people managed to avoid trouble and then clean up the mess thanks to new technology.

Attacking one tool of the rioters rather than the root of the problem seems totally misguided. Why not ban bricks and paving stones that were used to smash shop windows? Why not ban clubs and baseball bats for fear they may be used in violent clashes? Why not ban matches and lighters to prevent people lighting fires?

Rather than worrying about banning Twitter and other social media in times of trouble, why not engage more fully with it and turn it into a tool to get one step ahead of the mob? On BBC's Question Time last night, Brian Paddick MP, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police and a veteran of the Brixton Riots in 1981 and 1985 said, "These crowds were organising themselves using social networks. Why weren't the Police on Twitter, on Facebook, on Blackberry Messenger, getting one step ahead of the crowds?"

If individuals can find out what's happening through social networks, why can't the authorities in the same time? Banning mainstream social networking sites will push such communications underground, into one or many of a stream of less well-known sites. And people on the ground are more likely to hear about each new site before the Police.

Social networks are a centrepoint of our society now. Like anything we live with day in and day out, they can be used for good and they can be used for evil. We need to accept that they are here and embrace their power to help, rather than be frightened of the negatives.

Former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott tweeted this morning. "Social media is a powerful tool for good", he said. "We need an inquiry into riot causes, not a knee-jerk ban to please the Daily Mail."

One of my favourite tweets, though, came earlier in the week.

"Without Twitter the riots would still have happened. Without Twitter the clean-up may not have done".


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