LONDON, (Reuters) – With social media brutally accelerating the news cycle and allowing rumours from riots to bank failures to spread at lightning speed, politicians, businesses and governments must adapt fast.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to temporarily block platforms such as Blackberry messaging used to coordinate looting and unrest — but the experience of the “Arab Spring” suggest that approach might be doomed to failure.
For some of the world’s most powerful countries, the stakes could hardly be higher. Britain’s riots rendered parts of London and other cities briefly ungovernable and raised serious questions over the sustainability of the government’s austerity strategy.
The ousting of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt by social media-fuelled revolutions clearly alarmed China’s rulers, who rely on a sophisticated system of “networked authoritarianism” to control online debate and avoid a similar fate.
But even some veteran security specialists warn such attempts may not only be doomed to failure but could jeopardise the authority of those who try. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s Internet shutdown, they warn, merely served to bring more people onto the streets.
“The use of social media in the unrest looks like a game changer but any attempt to exert state control… looks likely to fail,” said John Bassett, a former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Ultimately those governments that try to operate old-style control models are likely to fail, losing legitimacy and respect in the eyes of their populations,”
Monitoring networks for useful intelligence was useful, he said, as was encouraging individuals and community groups to report potential troublemakers.
But most communication experts say that what established organisations really need to do is learn to use such platforms to shape the narrative themselves. And they need to learn fast.
Caroline Sapriel, a specialist consultant based in Brussels who advises multinational companies on crises, says the key is for firms to use platforms such as Twitter to swiftly engage on an issue and avoid losing control.
“These days, crises of all types unravel and gain momentum at light speed,” she said. “There is no longer any question that to tell your side of the story… social media is the way — not reactively but proactively, strategically planned and handled by specialists around the clock. This is not a part-time job.”
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp discovered that to their cost last month. An online Twitter campaign to persuade advertisers to abandon the scandal-hit News of the World took hold so fast that the paper ceased production within days.
Allegations that the newspaper hacked telephone voice mails and paid for police information not only inflicted lasting reputational damage on News Corp but also much of the British establishment seen as much too close to mogul Murdoch.