Twitter and other social media sites are sparking an international debate over whether the forums serve the public good or make it easier to incite disorder.
There are examples of both in recent months.
- In Mexico, before the police or news reporters had even arrived at an underpass outside Veracruz where gunmen held up traffic and dumped 35 bodies at rush hour last week, Twitter users were warning others to avoid the area, reports The New York Times. The warnings on Twitter about the bodies arrived on the same day that Veracruz’s State Assembly made it a crime to use Twitter and other social networks to undermine public order.
- In China, Sina.com is warning microbloggers that it will penalize them for spreading false rumors on Weibo, which is Sina’s Twitter-like social media service that has 200 million registered users, reports CNN.
- In England, British police threatened to bring charges against those who used social media to incite the looting and violence that began after the police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in North London last month.
- Reflecting social media’s use in influencing political and societal change, in the United States police arrested scores of protesters Saturday in New York’s Financial District while onlookers uploaded video and commentary to a variety of social media sites almost instantly. And last month San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit came under fire for shutting down cellular service to hinder protesters from communicating and using social media to organize.
Twitter has probably been most famously used to organize political change in the Middle East, so much so that Google launched a “voice-to-Twitter” service specifically to assist Egyptian Twitter users in February when Internet service was blocked.
While governments increasingly acknowledge the power of social networks to influence citizen behavior, their attempts to control how people use them can at times seem somewhat ridiculous. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are public, free and open. For an outside entity to proclaim what can and cannot be done on them is like trying to discipline someone else’s unruly kid.
That said, the spreading of false rumors or the encouragement of looting is undeniably troublesome for everybody.
What are your thoughts? Is there a place for some amount of government regulation when it comes to social media? Should the dissemination of harmful or incorrect information be punishable?