Governments around the world are having to learn on the hoof how to deal with the impact of social media on law and order. Banning websites is at best a short-term solution. At worst it exposes the government to charges of intolerance and failing to take preventative intelligence-led measures.
Violence in India can be far more extensive than in many other democracies, and authorities have bumbled along in the past through a mix of coercion and persuasion. Newspapers and news agencies, for instance, were not allowed to mention Muslims or Hindus in their reports on religious violence because you didn’t want the next day’s papers to fan the violence.
There is no ‘next day’ in news now, as law enforcement authorities are discovering everywhere. They need to cooperate more closely – as India has discovered, national boundaries don’t mean a thing for Internet users. In terms of the makeup of their societies, there are certain similarities between India and Britain that should allow police forces in both countries to work closely, learning from each other.
The misuse of the Internet and mobile phones to spread violence in India this month may have been copied from the London rioters of last year. The violence, arson and looting that followed the shooting of a suspected criminal by policemen in Aug 2011 were spread through Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger.
Initially, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to ban those who were convicted of rioting from using social media and mobile phones but nothing much has come of it yet. Importantly, however, he succeeded in forcing social media sites such as Facebook into taking greater responsibility for their content.
Facebook removed “several credible threats of violence” and Blackberry lent full assistance to the police investigation, although the government has the power to legally force companies to hand over details of users suspected of unlawful activity.
This may mean that social media sites now have the first responsibility to tip off police about any incitement to violence. It may allow for British police to work with these companies in order to prevent such violence or at least prevent it from spreading the way it did last year.
The rule of law and judicial processes, however, also place some curbs on the government and police. Firstly, police cannot prevent people from using social media. But it can investigate and arrest people if there’s a complaint against them for misusing social network sites, which is where the role of the public becomes important.
Can police close down social media sites in a public order/riot situation? This has never been done in Britain, but then the riots of last year too were unprecedented. There are no plans to introduce such measures, but where’s the sense in foreclosing the option?
Cameron’s idea of banning some convicted individuals from using social media is not unrealistic – but it would be up to the courts to give such orders provided the prosecution can make a strong enough case.
What has been the British response to the 2011 disturbances? The Association of Chief Police Officers (APCO), which is made up of the heads of all of Britain’s regional police forces, has drawn up a National Public Order Framework which sets out the role of the police in dealing with disorder, and gives clear guidance to practitioners on how to respond in different situations.
“It makes absolutely clear what response the public will get from the police when incidents occur.” Public consultation will begin on that document later this year, and it has already begun with stakeholders.
The man who heads ACPO’s working group on public order and public safety is Ian Learmonth, chief constable of the Kent police force. He says that a year on from the riots, British police “have developed more effective community intelligence systems, including utilising social media, to better pick up tensions and allow us to be proactive in dealing with those.”
“If faced with the same circumstances what would be different? We would certainly be able to detect the rising community tension earlier and better respond. We could get officers to where they are needed much faster, and they will be better trained, equipped, and prepared,” Learmonth says.