The Futility of Trying to Prevent Twitter-Inspired Protests

I’ve been hearing a lot about the uneasy relationships between governments and social media, especially Twitter.  Since it’s been credited in part with helping several revolutions and protests, is it inevitable that it will soon fall under some sort of restriction?  If, for no other reason, than because of a government’s instinct for self-preservation?

I wonder- you’d think the internet in general would be more regulated by now, but it still seems fairly happily anarchic.

But when the British Prime Minister publicly mulls the possibility of banning certain people (troublemakers) from Twitter, when San Francisco’s public transportation service decides to cut off cell phone service to prevent protest, and the state of Colorado is considering tracking social media, it makes me wonder what could happen to a useful tool for the public to create change.

San Francisco’s actions were apparently unilateral (and possibly illegal) and have attracted the scrutiny of the FCC.  Britain’s proposal was met with disagreements, even while the country is building a nationwide broadband network.  No, I’m not thinking it would be some sort of way to limit what people hear/see online; Britain is still no China.

I do have a problem with the heavy-handed approach to address public protest: cut off  some or all people’s access to social media or internet service?  Why punish all for the actions of a few?  More importantly, how do you know which few to target?

This makes me think of a bit in a Jim Morrison biography I read, where young pre-Doors Jim suggested to his friends that with four “properly placed” people in a crowd, they could start a riot.  (To Jim’s reported disappointment, his friends weren’t interested).

But could that be true?  Could sparking a riot or a protest be accomplished using just a few people strategically, like matches to a pile of kindling?  And could this carry over into the world of social media?  Could just a few influential people, doing the right thing, inspire mass reaction?

If so, how would we determine which person in a massive movement was critical to spurring on the group?  I haven’t studied crowd dynamics, but I have a hunch that this would be nearly impossible.

Looking at recent riots, it seems that key players in the creation of a riot have been 1) the victim, and 2) the small group of people who publicize what happened to that victim.  Iran’s Neda Agha-Soltan was such a victim, though the riots (on a smaller scale) were already going on when was killed.  London’s riots are similar.

While there are probably key players in any of these social phenomenons, it seems that, at a point, control and action become decentralized like a flock of birds.  And how are you going to determine which bird most influences the flock?  Good luck.

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