Remember just two summers ago? For the first time in a long time, we saw riots in London, which, while they were contained and did not lead to very much damage, still gave the Coalition government quite a scare. They realised that this new form of communication, especially popular among today’s youth, can be quite effective, in terms of organising rallies and protests. Sure enough, two days later, David Cameron appeared before the House of Commons, promising to try to figure out some way to block some of the public’s access to many of the most popular social media sites. The implications of such thinking are in many ways extremely dangerous to a free and democratic society.
The Lessons from the Arab Spring
Perhaps the most striking example of the modern power of social media to affect political change came a few years ago, when what is known as the Arab Spring swung into full view of the entire world. Regimes in Egypt and Libya were toppled, ending years of what many considered to be a harsh and authoritative rule by those in power. It was largely conducted by the youth in those countries, which had the knowledge and facility to use various social media platforms to communicate on-the-fly, organise themselves so as to conduct mass demonstrations and even warn of any impending danger. This is not a discussion as to whether totalitarian governments should be overthrown, but rather the fact that modern social media provides those sufficiently motivated with the tools to attempt it, if not achieve it.
What Can the Government Do?
If in fact the government here became desperate enough to try to stop violence, they would have very few options that are actionable. There is also the very fine line that distinguishes the citizen’s ability to convene, with the intention of peaceful protest, versus out and out violence, which would include looting, robbery and other acts that most citizens would agree are unacceptable.
The first choice for the government is to ask social media sites to shut down the accounts of certain individuals who are using their platforms to incite violence. While this would be a fairly complex task, it would also be relatively pointless. All the suspect would have to do is create a new account, using a slightly different name and they would be up and running again. The second option for the government would be to blacklist certain websites, a practice that is common in China and in some instances also in Australia. The problem here is that some of the more popular social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter are often used, not only by regular citizens, but also by potential criminals. Blacklisting these entire websites would create an enormous backlash of protest. The third and least likely option would be to cut off Internet access to certain regions of the country if there was a fear that protests were being organised. Again, depriving an entire region of Internet access, just to keep a few individuals from using it, would prove to be highly unpopular.
Leveraging the Power of Social Media Websites
Naturally, social media websites can be used for good and that is the case most times. Many companies are finding that techniques such as Facebook Marketing can be highly effective to reach their core audience consumers, as well as attract new ones. It is however, almost an art, best left in the hands of experts who can execute a successful strategy.
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