Don’t Blame Social Media for Social Unrest

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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.

(MORE: Can We Please Take a Break from Blaming the Internet?)

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.

MORE: NYPD to Scour Facebook and Twitter for Evidence of Crimes

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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