Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explains why limiting access to social networks is not the answer to preventing riots, for CNN:
In the past, people seemed to require a massive “cue” to form a mob. The New York blackouts of the summer of 1977 resulted in citywide looting, not just because alarm systems were down, but because a whole lot of hot, angry, frustrated people had an excuse to act en masse. Likewise, the verdict on the Rodney King trial served as a spark, synchronizing simultaneous explosions of mob behavior in a dozen North American cities.
Media can certainly accelerate or even reproduce this process. Radio gave Hitler a way to unify angry crowds as never before, and it both inspired and facilitated the chasing down and murder of about 800,000 Tutsis by gangs with machetes in Rwanda. Radio broadcasters announced where potential victims were hiding, coordinating the violence via media.
Are social media such as Facebook and Twitter serving a similar function? This year, we’ve certainly become aware of how these technologies can coordinate the activities of protesters and rebels acting against repressive regimes. The Arab Spring was initiated on Facebook pages, orchestrated through Twitter accounts, and video recorded on cell phones.
But as we’re also beginning to witness, these same technologies are being used to orchestrate “flash” looting of stores — such as, apparently, at a 7-Eleven in Maryland on Saturday — and almost entirely destructive (or at least poorly justified) riots in England. A mob beating in Wisconsin was reportedly organized through social networks, as were attacks in Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington.
Is access to technology through which a network of friends can so easily be turned into a gang of thieves or assailants just too dangerous for people to handle? By putting what had formerly been the capability of broadcast networks in the hands of everyone owning smartphones, have we unwittingly empowered the “mob” and given new life to the lowest form of crowd behavior?
Maybe. But the abuse of these networks and their capabilities hardly justifies recent talk of limiting access, shutting them down, or entrusting corporations and central authorities to monitor them at the expense of our privacy. As the ever-growing News Corp./Scotland Yard scandal illustrates, it is not unregulated phone hackers we need to be afraid of so much as the folks who are supposed to be entrusted with maintaining these networks and our security…
[continues at CNN]