A puzzling aspect of the civil unrest galvanized during the Arab Spring by communications technology, and social media in particular, is that - until last week - its "democratising" effects seemed largely confined to non-liberal states. In those countries with a reputation for freedom of speech, the closest the media had come to challenging existing regimes was with the frequent anointment of a new Mayor of Starbucks. I'm not suggesting, of course, that the riots represented an outpouring of democratic sentiment - unfortunately they did not - but, had they done so, how would we now be interpreting the significance of their challenge to our established political order?
As the West looked on at the uprisings across the Arab world earlier this year, the first thought of its leaders would have been how they were made possible. The second thought, almost instinctively, would have been whether such things might happen closer to home. If our political leaders had any lingering doubts, last week's riots will have put them to rest. The actions of a relatively small, and marginal, group of people have shaken the complacent belief that widespread political apathy provides a sufficient buffer against those seeking more radical forms of change in our societies. The immediate threat of a largely disorganised and criminal mob may have dissipated but, be under no illusions, the implications of recent events will not have been lost on the political establishment.
The potential of social network communication has been harnessed by many political organizations and movements - often to great effect, widespread applause and considerable self-congratulation. But the medium is quite different in the way that it influences, relying to a much greater extent than other media on the active engagement, participation and recommendation of users. In some senses, this is what makes it appealing to political organizations, desperate as they are to demonstrate engagement and, thus, legitimacy. But while corporations and political movements attempt to tap into the immediacy, imagination and counter cultural vibe of social media, their flirtations disguise a very real fear of its destabilizing potential. Its capacity to mobilize sentiment, often in unpredictable and uncontrolled ways, is something that fundamentally threatens established orders. How to mitigate such a risk is something that has, not unnaturally, piqued the interest of those keen to ensure the integrity of existing structures.
On Thursday, no doubt buoyed by a public demanding strong (arm) leadership at this time, David Cameron fired a broadside on the basic principle of free flow of information - suggesting that it could be a force for "ill" in society. The government would, he said, be "working with the police, intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via [social networking] websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality". Of particular interest is the Prime Minister's association of disorder and criminality - designed, no doubt, to avoid embarrassing confusion down the line (like, for instance, when getting tactics wrong for the policing of riots). It's clear for the political establishment that disorder now exists somewhere between violence and criminality and must, naturally, be treated in the same way. With the Liberal Democrats seemingly on message, the Prime Minister garnered support from his own party and the opposition benches for the measures. Blissfully unconcerned by the democratic implications of their shamelessly self-serving support, we can - for the time being at least - be grateful that considerable technical (and possibly legal) obstacles stand in their way.
Some will argue, of course, that the government is acting responsibly in attempting to counter the potential for mobilizing criminal activity and, given the disturbing scenes of violence and mindlessness that characterized the riots, that they are unenviably trying to balance principles of free speech with a requirement for public order. There is, however, a tell-tale and disturbing reveal at the heart of the Prime Minister's statement to the House. Look closely and you will see that he intends to consult with the "police, intelligence services and industry" over the question of whether it is right to stop people communicating in this way. He isn't referring to the fundamental question of whether it is right, in a democracy, to prevent freedom of expression and the free flow of information; he is referring, instead, to the question of whether the police, intelligence services and industry think it would be "right" to do so. In other words, as far as the government is concerned, principles of free speech and freedom of expression are of secondary importance to questions of how and when best to curtail them. Answers to which will be provided, it seems, by those unimpeachable arbiters of democratic sensibility: the police, intelligence services and industry.
It should be more than apparent that we're witnessing a crisis of legitimacy in our society - a crisis that cuts to the very heart of how, and to what end, we're governed. Social media didn't create this problem but it is giving voice to a politically alienated generation of citizens who have had enough and are demanding change. A sense of which, no doubt, precipitated David Cameron's "Big Society" plan to empower communities with the "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street". Just so long, it seems, as they're not the ones making it happen...