Censoring Civil Unrest in Social Media Exacerbates Rioting – Study

We’ve been covering the technological side of the UK riots for some time now. After all that has happened to date, it seems a new study has surfaced in France that might serve against Prime Minister David Cameron should he try to go through and censor social media.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stood before the House of Commons and said that he wanted to “stop people from communicating” on social media when they wanted to find ways of participating in civil unrest. At the time, we suggested that this was unwise because whatever Cameron meant specifically, if he were serious, there are too many ways of getting around it. Whether it’s simply using different social networks or encrypting the messages, it’s highly unlikely such a plan would even be successful in the first place.

In any event, state media in China took full advantage of the situation in the UK and pretty much praised the move, using the idea that the UK is now censoring the internet to justify the countries own censorship of the internet. It was certainly a surreal moment when praise is coming from China over a “western” first world country wanting to implement a censorship regime on the internet of any kind that’s political.

In another turn of events, one man (as it turns out, actually two men) were sentenced to 4 years in prison for creating a Facebook page that could be seen as inciting the riots. Later reports confirmed that the page never actually incited any riots in the first place. That didn’t do a whole lot to quell criticisms over the length of the sentence.

Now, a study has surfaced that could put further doubt into Cameron’s idea of stopping people from communicating on social media. Numerama reports (Google translated, original) that a study released by Telecom ParisTech (EHESS) suggests that trying to censor civil unrest will make matters worse if your ultimate goal is to stop rioting. From the report:

Their study is based on modeling the behavior of crowds during civil unrest produced by JM Epstein in 2002. According to this model, the decision of an individual to express dissatisfaction is determined by its active neighborhood social police if he sees around him, he will act only if a sufficient number of demonstrators offset the police presence. One of the factors considered in this model is the “vision” which has the potential of expressing this neighborhood. Does he see the police and other protesters?

To simulate the cutting of social networks and media, the researchers then used this model by imagining that censorship led to a vision of zero neighborhood. It is not possible to know where to find a group of demonstrators, or places where the police is absent. Yet, against so-intuitive, their simulation concludes that the more confidence, so the fewer vision among protesters, the higher the level of violence remains high. Conversely, the failure to censor at all leads to the average level of violence the lowest obtained by larger peaks of violence, but occasional periods of calm many more.

The report points that while this is a computer model, one only needs to look at the civil unrest in Tunisia and Egypt as a real world example of the effects of censoring the internet at all. This, I certainly agree with. When certain countries do try to censor the internet, this tends to reflect poorly on the government – especially in countries on the African continent.

I think that this is another case of something being obvious after it is pointed out. In the context of the UK riots, maybe some people think that maybe a crackdown on social media isn’t such a bad idea. Then you look at a study like this, start connecting the dots and realizing that, no, censoring social media during times of civil unrest might be an unwise move.

I think that if the UK government is now more focused on gang activity, then all power to them. I have no problem with it. Censoring social media in general, though, not such a bright move.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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