There’s no doubt about it, technology has revolutionised communication and civil organisation in ways that we can barely recognise. Social networking is coordinating birthday parties, beach volleyball and wedding receptions in a frenzy of invitations, updates and Tweets that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Citizen journalism has gone from fringe to mainstream in two years, brushing convention aside in it’s wake.
But London is on fire. Sadly, not with ideas and debate, but with burning cars and shops; people’s livelihoods and hope filling the sky with smoke. This is no melodramatic statement, it’s as real as the lines of riot police charging gangs of teenagers, wooden sticks and glass bottles smashing against perspex and plastic. What has happened? How has it come to this so quickly? The media is in a frenzy, unsure how to read or report on the situation. On the one hand, they are overwhelmed by the pace of activity, unsure how to construct a narrative. Are the police to be cast as the villains, abandoning Joe Public to his fate, or as the thin blue line between civilisation and anarchy? Are the ‘protestors’ simply thugs and hooligans out for an opportunistic chance to grab a new phone, or are they legitimate spokesmen for a generation?
On the other hand, they are looking to allocate blame. Technology, schooling, policing, politicians. They are looking for answers when we don’t even understand the question yet.
Questions, no doubt, that time will answer, but the role of social media is an interesting one. There is no avoiding the fact that neither the media, the police, nor indeed society as a whole have adjusted to the totally synchronous nature of instant messaging and content sharing. There are parallel narratives taking place: media reports of Blackberry Messenger being used to coordinate riots (bad), Twitter being used to organise clean up efforts @riotcleanup (good). The race between the two for acceptance as the dominant face of social media is fascinating, with calls from politicians for Blackberry to somehow ‘control’ the issue (and, worse, Blackberry saying they will ‘do what they can’? Censorship anyone?).
These are, of course, the very same social media channels that we heralded as valiant facilitators of the Arab Spring earlier this year; coordinating protests in Egypt is clearly different from coordinating a raid on Curry’s in Clapham, but how responsible is the medium for the message?
Is trying to blame ‘social media’ for the troubles any different from blaming Panasonic or Sony for a bad film?
The key difference is that social media is a means of production and broadcast. It’s the printing press that we all own. Whilst i can make a film, the chances of it hitting mainstream TV are slim; there is a whole raft of editorial and financial complexity in the way of that. As a result, even poor tv shows and films have, at least, undergone some kind of review process and exist within an editorial framework. Not so citizen journalism/riot central. My phone alone makes me more powerful than any medieval scholar. I can broadcast, right now, to the world. Power without responsibility, all in one pocket sized package.
But can you blame the channel for the message? If you believe, as i do, that debate and engagement will sit at the heart of resolution, for any conflict, then surely you can’t censor the channels of discourse? Or rather, you can, but only in regard to the legal frameworks that cover inciting violence and broadcasting messages of hate. The price that society pays for being civil is accepting that not everything is a legitimate message, and that, for the protection and benefit of the minority, we need to agree, by consensus, what is and is not acceptable.
The debate is surely not about whether we can blame technology, but rather how our society copes with the vastly speeded up nature of communication and the viral effect of media imagery. The responsibility of the media for constructing the narrative is more immediate and essential than ever.
Take the army. Currently the media is positioning our Boys as valiantly fighting in the deserts and fields of far away places, insufficiently protected by the government, with a lack of helicopters and body armour. It’s a story of the Best of British pluck. Public support for the forces has turned around since the deepest days of the Iraq war.
Do you want to see how that story stacks up when a group of soldiers are let loose to pick a fight with a group of teenagers in a Birmingham retail park? Escalating violence will simply lead to someone being killed. The police are meant to patrol our streets. Their very name comes from ‘polis’, the greek city states, literally a man of the city. Existing media narratives will creak and break if faced with the army on the streets.
We communicate in stories, but the speed of news defies the media’s ability to construct a proper narrative, indeed, it’s arguable that there is no coherent narrative, but that doesn’t make for a good story. So we make one up. Everyone is cast in role, good or bad, but this pantomime approach can’t understand the role of technology.
Ultimately, it’s people who are responsible for their actions. You can no more blame ‘social media’ than you can a telephone, a loudhailer or a book. The bigger issue is to what extent the media are reporting on the issues and to what extent, however unintentionally, they are writing their own narrative and recruiting a cast to act it out.