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Tweeting: The Message Is Incriminating – OpEd

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By Osama Al Sharif

Tweeters will be prosecuted! This is what one senior Metropolitan Police head in London declared a day after riots broke out in various parts of the capital in August. He was referring to evidence that rioters were coordinating attacks on public property through the popular social networking tool. Twitter riot taunters have been accused of inciting violence and encouraging looting, which make them legally liable.

“If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east London,” one looter messaged before the violence spread, according to a report published by Forbes. The BlackBerry was singled out as the smartphone of choice for many culprits. BlackBerry Messenger allows users to contact large groups as well as accessing Facebook and Twitter as do other smartphones.

United Kingdom
United Kingdom

This lethal combination of smarter phones in the hands of so many youth and the stickiness of influential social media networks has helped bolster the mob mentality that took over Britain recently. Looters and rioters were able to coordinate their movement and launch attacks in areas where police was nowhere to be found.

It was an example of technology and new media forms being abused. And if the British authorities do press charges against tweeters it will set in motion a process that will be controversial but necessary. The interesting thing is the fact that Twitter has refused to suspend the accounts of British mass protesters, citing the importance of “freedom of expression,” the Daily Telegraph reported. “We keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone was quoted as saying in a published statement.

Of course, use of digital technology to commit a crime is not new. Hackers have been arrested and sentenced for illegally accessing bank records, personal information (the latest phone hacking scandal in Britain still resonates) and websites. But tweeting or using Facebook to incite others or coordinate looting is a relatively new phenomenon. It raises more questions about crime in cyberspace and how governments should respond to it.

In the Arab world social networks have been pinpointed as being instrumental in coordinating mass protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. Governments have tried to curtail them by blocking such sites, like in Syria, and hunting down cyber activists, including bloggers. While Arab youth were calling for political change, social and economic justice, rioters in Britain were attacking public and private properties and disrupting the peace.

Technology is a double-edged sword. Societies will have to cope with what they bring in; empowerment, knowledge and instant communication, in addition to criminal breaches of privacy, incitement, bigotry and spreading of racial hatred. It is a reflection of the complicated world we live in where benefits and rewards are sometimes counteracted by grievances and losses.

In Norway, right-wing Christian fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, indicted for the twin terrorist attacks in Oslo last July, used the Internet to publish his 1500-page manifesto to spread his extremist anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments. The Internet space is full of pages that promote xenophobia, supremacist principles, and radical ideas. The line separating freedom of expression and criminal incitement is becoming hair thin for sure. Of course the pervasiveness of social networks and smartphones can only be blamed to a certain extent. One must not overstate their role. Societies are going through social and economic upheavals. Britain’s riots have their roots in the compounded problems of unemployment, economic stagnation, rise of right-wing sentiments and failed integration policies, among others. Even without social media and smartphones Britain’s youth would have taken to the streets anyway. It happened before the age of the Internet; in the mid 1980s.

BBC technology writer Iain Mackenzie wrote that the extent to which technology is to blame (for the riots) may have been overstated. He quotes a research manager at Mobile Youth as saying that much of the online noise is just that. “Once someone starts posting on a BBM group or Twitter, a lot of young people try to follow the trend,” Freddie Benjamin said. “They might not join the actual event, but they might talk about it or use the same hashtag which makes it sound like there is a lot more volume.”

Social media tends to boost herd mentality, especially with regard to challenging the status quo and adoption of extreme ideas. But it is not clear that apart from empathy and creating noise it actually drives people to take to the streets and engage in unlawful conduct.

Social media can also help the law. In Britain’s case some rioters and looters were so proud of their deeds that they took pictures of themselves and uploaded video clips on YouTube. They were caught in the act and police were able to track down most of them.

Technology can be abused but societies will have to be the ultimate judge on how and when to draw the line without infringing on freedoms. There are no straightforward answers out there.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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