"Text messaging with steroids"

I have stumbled across more examples of the media and public figures promoting the social media panic discourse. The article in the Daily Mail very much propagates this view and uses stats from Twitter and a quotes from Mike Butcher, a technology journalist and digital adviser to Boris Johnson, who said it was ‘unbelievable’ that the BBM service had not been disabled and that ´there is evidence that BBM is an encrypted, very secure, safe, fast, cheap, easy way for disaffected urban youths to spread messages for their next target. ‘It’s like text messaging with steroids – you can send messages to hundreds of people and once it’s gone from your phone it cannot be traced back to you.’

Yet, there is a contradictory approach here – on the one hand, social network sites were lauded for their role in the Arab Spring, whilst in the UK they are being demonised and many (including those who often champion freedom of speech) are calling for censorship. So why might this be?

Of course, Stanley Cohen´s seminal text, “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” shows how public discourse tends to blame media and popular culture for triggering, causing or stimulating violence. “There is a long history of moral panics about the alleged harmful effects of exposure to popular media and cultural forms – comics and cartoons, popular theatre, cinema, rock music, video nasties, computer games, internet porn” – and, one should add today, social media. “For conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities and undermine moral authority; for liberals the media exaggerate the risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and authoritarian crime control policy” (Cohen, Stanley. 1972/2002. Folk devils and moral panics. Oxon: Routledge. Third edition. page xvii).

Christian Fuchs elaborates:

“Blaming technology or popular culture for violence – the Daily Mirror blamed “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs“ for the riots – is an old and typical ideology that avoids engaging with the real societal causes of riots and unrest and promises easy solutions: policing, control of technology, surveillance. It neglects the structural causes of riots and how violence is built into contemporary societies. Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is also an expression of fear. It projects society’s guilt and shame into objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in the fetishism of things. Social media and technology-centrism, both in its optimistic form (“social media will help our communities to overcome the riots”, “social media and mobile phones should be surveilled by the police”, “Blackberrys should be forbidden”, “more CCTV surveillance is needed”, “CCTV will help us find and imprison all rioters”) and its pessimistic form (“social media triggered, caused, stimulated, boosted, orchestrated, organized or fanned violence”), is a techno-deterministic ideology that subsitutes thinking about society by the focus on technology. Societal problems are reduced to the level of technology.”



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