Cutting Access to Social Media is Not the Answer in U.K. Riots

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It was 5:34am when the hideous screech of the alarm finally woke me up. My wife was already in the kitchen on her second cup of coffee, clutching her iPad with determined eyes fixed to the screen. I kissed her on the head before pouring myself a cup as she glanced up at me quickly and without a word. Something wasn’t right.

“Whatcha reading,” I asked casually in an effort to seem unaware of her obvious discomfort.

“Have you seen the news,” she countered.

I looked over her shoulder at the article she was reading. The headline jumped off the…paper, stabbing my eye as the roof above me crumbled.


I stood speechless as she put her head in her hands. We had spent our entire adult lives running a rock quarry, and in an instant our livelihood was stripped from us because some thugs used an otherwise valuable resource for evil. But I couldn’t be upset with the decision of the president. I mean, I value life. No one should die that way.


Does this story seem ridiculous to you? It should. But it isn’t far from what is currently happening in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron gave police the authority to shut down the Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook networks in order to keep rioters — apparently the overwhelmingly majority of them young people — from organizing. My question, and I think the question we should be asking of leaders who insist on condemning social media without understanding it, is: what exactly are we condemning?

Martin Luther started a revolution that exposed exploitative practices of the Catholic church in the 16th Century that depended greatly on new technology, namely the printing press. His movement was propagated by pamphlets printed in several languages that informed citizens and debunked myth. Similarly, many would argue that the French Revolution wouldn’t have happened without the printing press. Do we ban all forms of printing in an effort to avoid dissent? Do we ban gravel roads because rocks are easy weapons?

Books, radio, television and landline telephones have all been used as tools for communication that allowed individuals to share ideas, good and bad. And with each technological advance there has been an effort to suppress the lay citizen’s access to the medium. Remember when churches used to burn books because they were seen as evil for challenging deeply held ideologies? Oh yeah, that is still happening.

Despite our best efforts, marginalized citizens will eventually find a way to organize. It has happened in almost every society in history. And what have we learned? Not to understand the usually legitimate complaints of the protestors, not to address the social issues that lead to disenfranchisement, but to react instinctively and strip dissenters of their rights.

I do not condone the violence that has taken place in the U.K., and I forcefully condemn those who are causing damage. But I also condemn leaders around the world and the media for not thoughtfully exploring the possible causes of agitation that led to this unfortunate display of anger and desperation.

And I’ll give a warning to anyone that thinks a temporary ban on communication services and a violation of a person’s freedom of speech is warranted in these situations: just because someone can’t access Twitter doesn’t mean she/he is going to give up. As we have seen in Libya, it is likely to cause even more anger. An all-out ban on something that may or may not have been used for “evil” is not only an assault on basic freedoms, but also a simplistic (non)solution to a much deeper problem.

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