Don’t Shut Social Networks During Riots, Experts Agree


Facebook, and Twitter are a source of information and rioters have other networks, say experts

Social networks should not be shut down during civil unrest because it would deprive authorities of a key provider of “open source intelligence”, according to a panel of experts.

In addition to security concerns, the panel at the Westminster eForum on eCrime, cyber-threats and protecting critical infrastructure unanimously agreed that a social media blackout would infringe on freedom of expression and would ignore the positive aspects of social networks.

Open Source Intelligence

Social networks were a vital source of information for authorities, said Justin Crump, CEO of risk and intelligence consultancy Sibylline: “it’s amazing how much is given away on social media by criminals”, he said.

He said that the use of social networks during events such as protests had been researched before the riots, which were mostly carried out by people who knew each other already and the perpetrators would have used other methods of communication such as texting if social networks didn’t already exist.

Alan Michael, MP for Cardiff South and Penarth and chairman of the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum, cited the use of social media by Manchester police to try and understand the behaviour of rioters and to anticipate targets.

Police Engagement

Police engagement with the public was also presented as a positive aspect of social networking by Dr Paul Reilly, lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester, who warned against a kneejerk reaction

Dr Reilly said that Manchester police used social tools to reassure people about false rumours and also referred to the use of Twitter to organise clean-ups in affected cities. He added that 632 policemen are currently on Twitter, as is every constabulary force in the country, as the police begin to recognise its potential to build relationships.

It is important to understand the people, not just the technology, said John Bassett, associate fellow of RUSI (Royal United Services Union) and former head of GCHQ’s London office,

However, gathering intelligence on social media was not without its challenges, the panel agreed. The process can be difficult due to the amount of information that must be monitored and the need to operate at near real time, said Bassett.

Social networks are constantly evolving and investment was needed to keep up with these changes, said Crump, adding that it was hard work, but can generate important intelligence.

Questionable Morals

It was “silly to suggest switching off social media”, said Peter Bradwell, a campaigner for Open Rights Group, claiming it would oppress the channels of communication and infringe on freedom of expression.

Basset agreed, saying that a ban would generate panic and compromise the values of the government such as upholding free speech. He also added that the authorities are likely to gather a lot of intelligence and this must be safeguarded in order to maintain legitimacy.

If you control the media you “get into bed” with some uncomfortable behaviour and other groups will use it to justify their behaviour, warned Professor Roger Graef from the Mannhiem Centre for Criminology and a member of the Metropolitan Police Independent Advisory Group.

It was recently revealed that over half of Brits would support a social network ban during times of unrest, but the government has backed down over taking such measures.

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