Following the disorder that hit the streets of the UK in August there has continued to be extensive discussion about the role of social media. Mainly this was a debate about the possibility of closing down social networks during such incidents. Once the Government had raised the issue in the early stages of the disorder it has remained on the agenda of politicians and the media, even now three months later.
Today, there has been plenty of reporting of the comments made by Theresa May yesterday, that those involved in the trouble could have their access to social networks barred when they are convicted. Not only is this going to be almost impossible to impose but it also fails to understand social media and particularly its role during a crisis.
The continued discussion around possibly suspending or shutting down social networks does not take account of the positive that networks were used for in the aftermath of the disturbances, from street clean-up to identifying those involved. It could be argued that a lot of the recovery activity would have been slow to develop or would not have had the same impact if only standard networks had to be relied upon.
But while we accept a discussion about gagging social networks we would not allow similar conversations about silencing the traditional media. No-one would try to have a sensible discussion about demanding the media only report officially sanctioned information, or that rolling 24-hour news channels should be suspended. It is accepted that the media have a key role to play and that as one journalist put it recently they are the ‘guardians of the truth’. By silencing them how would people know what is happening which would lead to more rumour and speculation than was seen on social media.
The constant discussion about the role of social media is at risk of stagnating communication for many organisations. I have said many times that we need to accept the changing world of communication in the modern era and instead of being afraid and seeking control we must learn to work with the new world. Too much energy is being wasted on seeking control rather than putting effort into redefining roles and building for the future. My final word on the situation is that the more something is seen to be forbidden the more people will revel in using it. We can expect that the next time there is disorder even more chatter will take place on social networks. The question at that time will be can we then continue to ignore it.