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The Daily Mail ran the headline, “Rioting thugs used Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store,” and police officials and members of parliament called for a suspension of BlackBerry Messenger service.
But the riots seem to be the iceberg’s tip of social media unrest this week. In the U.S., Twitter-organized flash mobs have been descending on convenience stores and department stores, allowing dozens of congregating vandals to loot goods and then leave, shielded by the anonymity of a crowd. Such mobs have been reportedin D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. In one case in April, a “gang incited” Twitter mob trashed Venice Beach shops and left a man shot.
Twitter also facilitated what was essentially a denial of service attack on the Compton Sheriff’s station phones on Friday. Rapper “The Game” tweeted the police station’s phone number to his 580,000 followers saying they should call to apply for a music industry internship. As a result, police phone lines were tied up for several hours, affecting 911 service. The rapper may now be facing charges.
Back in the U.K., police are beginning to crack down. On Friday, Essex police arrested a man for sending a BBM text message encouraging people to take part in a mass water-gun fight. And two men from Cheshire have been sentenced to four years in jail for posting Facebook messages inciting rioting and looting. (Their pleas were unsuccessful.)
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament after the riots. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.”
And there’s the rub.
Twitter and other social media are value-neutral tools, and they can be put to incredibly destructive uses. Let’s never forget, though, that the vast majority of the time social media is used constructively, connecting friends and family, facilitating expression and creativity, and even spawning amazing spontaneous efforts like the volunteer clean-up after the riots.
It’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned over its potentially destructive uses, but let’s be careful what we do about it. Cameron went on to tell parliament that he had asked police if they needed new powers to tackle social media hooliganism. If that includes the ability to shut down new media or restrain people from speaking, that’s a bad idea.
One reason is that police and politicians are not going to be very good at distinguishing between harmless fun flash-mobbing, legitimate political protest, and incitements to crime. They will tend to err on the side of caution—and the side of avoiding any potential controversy at all.
Last week saw a case in point when San Francisco transit authorities shut down cell phone service at some of their subway stations after they got word that a group would be protesting a recent fatal shooting of an unarmed man by BART Police. That’s the kind of preemptive censorship of protestors that Western government railed against this spring when it was Arab regimes pulling the plug.
Police will tend to ignore the overwhelming amount of good that social media facilitates at the first sign of a potential threat. That’s a dangerous tendency, and that’s why governments—democratic or autocratic—should not have the power to pull the plug on communications.
What’s the alternative? Police should police and apprehend and prosecute the small minority of delinquents who use the new tools for ill. There’s uncertainty in that, and a real possibility that new media will be used for crime. It’s also a lot more work for officials. But that is the small price we must pay for a free society.
Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito.