The current government has had a stormy relationship with social media. As leader of the opposition, David Cameron caused a stir with his quip that “too many tweets might make a twat.” But one year later, his party came into office riding a wave of enthusiasm for Facebook and Twitter. The PM certainly owed some of his election campaign’s success to social media in a hard-won election. And who can forget that cringe-worthy video conference between DC and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, shortly after Cameron arrived in office? On the power of Facebook to engage voters, the Prime Minister said, “We’ll see that people really want to take part. But it wouldn’t be possible without you, Mark.”
Earlier this year Cameron extolled the power of social media to aid, rather than threaten, democracy during a speech he made in Kuwait. He stated that freedom of speech and the Internet were, “the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.
Recently, however, the mood has changed. The infamous Raoul Moat tribute page gave Facebook a PR problem; the Prime Minister expressed outrage over the erosion of super-injunctions via Twitter; in a grand finale pairing distaste and disorder, rioters were able to spread mass rioting and looting around the capital and then through the country via Twitter and Blackberry Messenger.
The PM’s response—an opinionated U-turn on the virtues of social media—reveals a serious flaw in his approach to the medium. Instead of moving towards engagement with those who use such services, lawmakers are left distractedly debating the inherent good or evil of Twitter and BlackBerry Messaging, wondering how to shut segments of them off but keep others alive. The complexity of our society’s adoption of social networking is only beginning to be understood—draconian legislation would no doubt fail to grasp that complexity and run the risk of being unenforceable.
So the honeymoon period between chirpy political leaders and t-shirt-wearing social network pioneers is over. Now that the reality of the web—beyond the self-promotion of public figures—is becoming clear, the egalitarian virtues of cyberspace are being called into question. The political classes are increasingly concerned by the feverish dissent which might be cultivated online by anarchists and extremists.