Christian Heilmann

Posts Tagged ‘londonriots’

Good governments allow for informed citizens – help prevent the social media lockdown attempt

Friday, August 12th, 2011

When bad things happen, people look for a scapegoat. When a government is threatened it tries to analyse what happened and find a quick solution that gives people hope and shows them that those “up there” are in control and can protect us from evil. In the last few days the United Kingdom burnt, got looted and the next generation of citizens to build the future of this country were the people doing it. Others stood by, too shell shocked to realise that mere presence and a “what are you doing, stop this” could have prevented a lot of the damage.

A lot of further damage was prevented as people organised themselves, communities kept close together and stood their ground. People learnt first-hand from Twitter, Facebook, Text Messaging, emails and phonecalls what is happening, when to board up their shops, where rioters are and what is happening. Of course there was a lot of speculation, but so was in the news. The official BBC news channel during the riots had a few false positives and wrong locations and names of burning buildings. Communication errors happen – if the media is swift enough they can also be verified very fast and sorted out.

The police, the courts and the government have done incredible work to stop the mindless destruction and violence – and that is what it was – this was not an organised terrorist attack, it was pure pent up anger and frustration of not having a prospect of a future in a world where you get bombarded with messages to consume more and think less.

Now the government is starting to misunderstand the opportunity communication systems pose for doing good and keeping information flowing. If you keep people in the dark, they assume the worst. We are conditioned not to assume “all is fine”. Deep down in our subconscious we fear to get eaten by some vicious animal as soon as we go out in the dark and that makes us scared, defensive and ineffective to do good.

When David Cameron talks about a clampdown and “banning rioters from social media” I get scared. I am scared to pay tax and support a government that has not a single clue how the new media that its citizens use every day works while spending millions on funding “IT innovation programs” and “enticing UK entrepreneurs to show technical excellence”. Social media is branded a scapegoat and a big part of why the riots happened and why the police was less effective than they could be. The government and old school media conjure a scary image of social media being a free flow of information that is not governed by anyone and is not controllable and therefore a threat and a playground for evil doers to organise themselves much more efficient than the law enforcement agencies can.

There are so many wrong arguments in this, it hurts me even to think about it. Regardless of the technical impossibility to “block people from social media” – which assumes that people only can have one, fixed identity there (guess what, I can buy a £10 pre-pay simcard and I have a new identity) the quick solution proposal to shut down social media access completely misunderstands the concept of social media – it is a massive group of people!

Social media is an incredible evolution of media. Instead of waiting for news to be written, organised and honed to instill one reaction or another (and this is what a lot of our media has come to) it means a free flow of information. This is scary to some but to me it means that it empowers everyone to chime in, make up their own mind and speak up when things are wrong. This has always been the case on the web. I spent a long time of my life on IRC, as an admin and I kicked, banned and told people off for spreading hate or soliciting illegal behaviour. Wikipedia editors spend a lot of time deleting articles that are wrong or politically incorrect. People contact admins to delete content or solve issues or investigate the behaviour of users. We do police social media by being part of it. That the government has not understood embracing a new media and do the same hurts me. Your citizens message each other and talk to each other – when I see official use of social media all I see is a news feed being sent out to a different channel. Using social media efficiently would safe the government money, time and make it appear approachable and human rather than an entity that is far removed and won’t understand us anyways.

My city burned, my country (yes, I have been here for 10 years and I do consider it my country) is shell-shocked that a few kids can take over and destroy people livelyhoods and make us scared to go out in the dark. This is not because they organised themselves with Blackberries and Twitter – this is because the government has failed to listen and people have lost faith and respect for those in charge.

During the riots I didn’t sleep much. I was on every social media channel, taking in information, comparing with the mainstream media reporting and seeing what is going on. I was on my balcony and out talking to shop owners. I tip my hat to the people on the london-journos Twitter list (especially Paul Lewis who followed the riots up-close and gave information from the streets), The West Londoner, Birminghamriots and ##londonriots on freendode (with David Singleton doing a great job keeping rumours in check and keeping people stating information rather than their political view).

Social media is now used for good – much more swiftly than any other channel. I was amazed by the swift organisation of #riotcleanup and the picture of brooms in the air still makes me choke. As does the courage of the lady telling rioters off for destroying their own neighbourhoods. I love how it was people on social media to propose sending money and help to Ashraf Haziq and others before newspapers thought of it.

Even the police uses social media right now to find the rioters – Flickr groups ask you to identify them and they name the rioters on Twitter.

There are so many issues to fix right now. Calling the riots a wake-up call would be the understatement of the year. Maybe the rioters were organising themselves, maybe there is a big, evil orchestration behind the madness. It does not matter, because if we now concentrate on silencing people instead of listening and understanding their needs, then we fail even more as a society and as a sophisticated, first world country. Countries who have to rule with fear and silencing their citizens are those we accused of doing wrong in the world courts and in some cases invaded to “liberate”. We should now liberate ourselves.

For years our media has painted a picture of young people to be no good hoodies who are more likely to stab you than to talk to you. Cheap, emotional headlines outcasted them as leeches to the system and unwilling to work and be a good citizen. This made people scared of confronting them and even communicating with them. This has to stop. We faced a total breakdown of communication. These kids felt outside the law, outside of society and invincible as they have nothing to fear and in some cases nothing to lose. We need to understand them and fight the causes that drove them into this thinking.

For us, as the privileged people on the web who have the luxury of debating for hours which technology is best to rotate a logo I think it is time to show this government why a freeflow of information is a damn good thing.

  • Our job right now in the UK is to show with hard evidence that communication systems like social media helped to prevent damage
  • Our job is to show that social media is more than celebrities, advertising and organising illegal activity. It is extremely effective as a means to give out information and get feedback – if you use it right
  • Our job is to convince the government that informed citizens are citizens who can act and prevent bad things from happening

Let’s use the power we have at our hands to help the police and government do their job. Let’s stop soiling an amazing opportunity like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ with mindless trolling and hatred and ignorance. Let’s be social on the social media, rather than opinionated. Let’s collect positive things about social media and show them to traditional media and the official channels of the government. Let’s stop telling people how much money Zuckerberg made without going to uni and how many millions are spent on buying products that make it easier on the web to buy other products and instead share knowledge and show that the web can be an amazing opportunity for learning and sharing.

I love the internet, I love being able to get information and have the freedom to make up my own mind about it . I love getting raw data which can be turned into facts after verification. I don’t want to wait for information till the news is out or the paper is printed. This is 2011. Media has to move on – if governments and media professionals do not take part it will without them anyways. Ever since the first pamphlet has been printed people realised the power of distribution. And we have an immediate, world-wide distribution right at our fingertips. This can be used for good or it can be used for propaganda and organising crime. I believe in people and think if we stop concentrating on consumption and instead on sharing information, educating people and understanding the background before passing judgement we are on the way to a better society.