Defend Truth


Real life goes ‘Minority Report’ as governments clamp down on social media


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

In Britain on Tuesday, two men were found guilty of organising riots with Facebook events, titled plainly "Warrington Riots" and "Smash Down Northwich Town”. No matter these riots never actually happened, the judge, in an uncompromising mood, meted out sentences of four years each. 

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were not exactly inventive in naming their calls to action, but they were thoughtful enough to include a date, time, and location. Their attention to detail proved to be in vain.  Their intended targets were left unharmed and their campaign roused the suspicion of local police who moved quickly to slap handcuffs on the young men. This latest instalment of the British riots has eerie undertones of the Hollywood blockbuster “Minority Report”, raising questions about the role of the Internet in preventative policing.

In the film, a specialised police department apprehends criminals before they take the trouble to commit any crimes, based on foreknowledge gained through psychics called “precogs”. In the UK last week, police apprehended criminals based on intent to commit crimes explicitly expressed on a social media platform. The judge delivering the stern sentence to the young men gravely intoned that their Facebook posts were said to have “caused significant panic and revulsion in local communities as rumours of anticipated violence spread.” While the judge felt circumstances demanded the young men receive strict sentences, civil liberties groups, legal experts and some politicians fear the disproportionate sentencing could only lead to distrust of law enforcement agencies.

Already, British Prime Minister David Cameron has drawn strong criticism for vowing to clamp down on the use of social media to stir unrest in his country. “If people use social networking sites to provoke violence, we must stop them,” he said. Without much anecdotal evidence, the co-ordination of the riots that rocked Great Britain last week is credited to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion’s instant messaging service, Blackberry Messenger. Like with the Arab uprisings, the role of social media in the British riots seems to have been greatly overstated. Renowned free speech activist and the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, California, Jillian C. York warns that no evidence exists to suggest that shutting down social media or other Internet services will impede the organisation of a riot, or prevent violence. She points out that after the government of Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in Egypt during the popular uprising in the North African country earlier this year, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that this did not deter protesters. “The protests continued despite the internet shutdown. People organised marches through flyers and word of mouth, and used dial-up modems and fax machines to communicate with the world,” Clinton said.

Internet filters and the censorship of social media platforms were, up until the past two weeks, draconian measures of restraint used by repressive governments like Iran and China to quell dissent. Yet, the harbingers of democracy and civil rights in the modern world, the United States and the United Kingdom have both moved recently to clamp down on the use of technology to stir trouble.

In San Francisco last week, the San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) proved how seriously social networking is seen as a threat to law and order when the subway system cut off cellphone signals at “select” stations in a move to help avert a planned protest. Officially, BART claimed to have interrupted service “as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform,” insisting that it took the actions because protesters said they “would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police.” Demonstrators had planned a rally to bring attention to a number of transit police officer shootings, the most recent resulting in the death of 45-year-old Charles Hill, who was shot last month after a confrontation with officers. York, who was present at the last BART protest, insists that it was not a violent protest. “(If) it’s okay for governments to shut down networks in the event of violence (as we’ve seen in the UK these past few days), and you also think it’s okay for BART to do it to avoid “disruptions of service,” then where do you really draw the line?” York asks.

The Internet has been hailed as the epitome of human advancement, the great bastion of freedom that instils fear into repressive regimes. As Western governments now clamour to control the flow of information on these platforms, there appears an encroachment on civil liberties by technological advancement. This is now an age characterised by an awkard dance between surveillance and privacy, security and freedom.

Cameron is due to meet with local operators of social networking sites to explore the possibility of blocking individuals who might use the sites to violent ends. He is going as far as looking for means to involve police and security services in the pursuit of potential online troublemakers. Earlier this week, the British spy arm, MI5 was drafted to help encrypt Blackberry messages sent during the riots. In Britain at least, surveillance seems likely to trump old-fashioned freedoms. Surveillance looks likely to trump privacy as governments like the British move to control the flow of information.

There is a delicious irony to the Chinese state media website Global Times weighing in on the debate suggesting that “Western” countries are coming to realise that free speech cannot go unhindered on the Internet. The resemblance to more repressive regimes is becoming more and more apparent. On Monday, officers outside London announced that they had arrested a man for sending text messages encouraging people to take part in a mass water fight. The arrest is emblematic of paranoia in Britain following the riots but is also reminiscent of a similar incident in Iran just weeks ago. Hundreds of young men and women  who had responded to Facebook invitations to meet at parks in two Iranian cities, Tehran and Bandar Abbas, and spray each other with water, had their fun stopped when authorities intervened and made several arrests.

Even the NYPD has been roused to think up their own social media policing, launching their own social media unit, which will scan sites like Twitter, Facebook and Myspace for explicit brags about crime or potentially dangerous situations. It really is Minority Report all over again and this time it’s real life. DM



Read more:

  • London riots: how BlackBerry Messenger played a key role in The Guardian (UK)
  • We have been here before in The Economist;
  • Facebook riot calls earn men four-year jail terms amid sentencing outcry in The Guardian (UK)

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Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

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