History is replete with examples of inventions that ought to have been used specifically for the betterment of mankind being hijacked, misused and abused. But perhaps the most glaring is the recent widespread use of social media for the organisation and execution of criminal activities in cities in England. According to reports, Facebook, but mainly Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM), have been used by the ringleaders to draw mobs/gangs to particular areas where they would loot and burn stores and other businesses, rob people and generally disrupt lives and livelihoods.

The average British ‘copper’ does not carry a gun and is trained to not counter violence with violence. The ‘louts,’ well aware of this, knew that in their numbers they could challenge authority and get away with it, which they did initially until the authorities recognised that the flash gang crimes were worsening and that action was needed to restore some semblance of order and normality. In what could only be described as a knee-jerk reaction, there was an initial proposal made by the ‘top brass’ to shut down these social media sites to curb the violence. So far it has not happened. Instead, the police were able to use Twitter and BBM to thwart other proposed organised criminal activity in England and to arrest and charge some of the organisers of these hateful activities. Despite this, the police have not completely ruled out shutting down the social media sites to definitively put a lid on the riots; they said it will still be pursued as part of their investigative strategy.

Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion’s (RIM) BBM services were set up to allow people to stay in contact with each other, as well as in tune with the latest news, among other things. There is no way that the developers of any of this technology would have allowed it to proliferate had the recent violent activity been foreseen. Questions have been raised too as regards the twin issues of privacy and security, given that in the case of the issue mentioned above, the production companies would have agreed to cooperate fully with the police.

But where does that leave everyone else? What of the people who use social media to reconnect with long-lost friends and family, or for enjoyment or business? Should Peter be made to pay for Paul in this instance?

Lest we forget, misuse and abuse of social media occur all the time. The only difference is perhaps the fact that these unsocial thugs took it up on a grand scale. Even as this column is being written and read, children below the stipulated age are signing up for and logging in to Facebook and Twitter. Paedophiles are also out there posing as underage children, luring other children into their webs in order to prey on them. Stalkers are trolling the World Wide Web looking for their next victims. Pornography is being uploaded onto websites. All of this is well known, but none of it even on the largest of scales has seen a call made for even the temporary closure of any of these extremely popular social media.

However, perhaps these recent events will serve to move the owners of the social media to actually enforce what is contained in their terms of service agreements that users must accept before being allowed to sign on for the first time. Facebook’s terms, updated as recent as April this year, threaten to pull the plug on users who “post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”.

RIM meanwhile, “reserves the right to review materials posted to or sent through a communication service and to remove any materials in its sole discretion. RIM further reserves the right to terminate your access to any or all of the communication services and this site at any time, without notice, for any reason whatsoever.

“RIM reserves the right at all times to disclose any information as RIM deems necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request…”

Many persons freely admit that they do not take the time to read terms of service when joining social media; they simply click “I agree” and move on to where the action is. It’s obvious that the troublemakers in London, Manchester and other cities in England fall into this category. The companies concerned should follow through on their warnings and dump them as customers with a lifelong ban. Where social media are concerned the unspoken rule has been the more the merrier, but sometimes it has to be about more than the bottom line.

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