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London riots lead to second thoughts about online speech

By Wang Fang (People's Daily Online)

17:21, August 19, 2011

Edited and Translated by People's Daily Online

The recent London riots have again brought harsh criticism of social media. British police believe that social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, and smartphones, like the Blackberry, have made it too easy for rioters to incite violence and coordinate looting.

The riots have generated heated discussions among Western people as to whether social media should stick to certain basic principles for freedom of speech online, whether the supervision and regulation over new media should be enhanced and how the public can develop a scientific and rational attitude toward the use of new media.

New media like the Internet are influencing public opinion, social climate and the transfer of political power at an unprecedented depth and speed. During the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, social media spread related information at lightning speed and produced a profound influence far beyond imagination. They have become a catalyst for movements and campaigns worldwide.

During the Iranian presidential elections in 2009, certain Western media outlets and political forces spread the word via various social media, and the U.S. government even asked Twitter to delay a planned maintenance outage because of its use as a communications tool by Iranians for protests on the streets of Tehran, the country's capital.

After the recent terrorist attacks in Norway, a German youth protection website has found that certain groups are increasingly disseminating far-right ideologies via micro-blogs, Internet chat rooms, video-sharing websites and other services. The German website said that there were about 190 videos promoting far-right ideologies on YouTube. These videos received a total of more than 170,000 views and were designed to encourage people to attend gatherings of far-right groups.

In the era of new media, the "fence of news" has been widened and the public has joined in information dissemination. People not only consume news and information but also share, add and create information and opinions. They also shift from online to offline and change society by expressing views. During the U.K. riots, there were not only rioters and young people who conspired through social networks and looted targeted stores in a very short time but also hundreds of volunteers who acted as network flashers and gathered together quickly to clean the streets.

A British scientist marveled at the charm of new media and said that the Butterfly Effect of Twitter is fascinating and exciting and has magically expanded people's channels to learn information, which increases work and life efficiency and even changes the modern people's senses of time and space.

New media is a complex web of contradictions, however, because it is full of hope as well as disappointment. The virtual elements and accessibility of the technical platform, anonymity of netizens, as well as the weakening of the "gatekeeper" mechanism have generalized the limits of speech freedom. Moreover, false online information, personal attacks, infringements and illegal acts, negative words and deeds to incite riots have been emerging all the time.

Under the new rules of faster spreading in a shorter time, information dissemination has shown a new trend: displaying the hottest and acutest facts within limited time and space has become a "magic key" to attract eyes. And negative information is more likely to become the focus after being re-sent with critical comments many times. Such information is also spread by "opinion leaders" and then evolves into large-scale moral denunciations.

Under the influence of strong public opinion, individuals often easily follow it and imitate. During the U.K. riots, various kinds of inflammatory and provocative messages made many young people believe that everyone was doing that and they should also join it. A girl who gave herself up to the police after stealing a television set asked herself many times: "why did I steal that TV set? We don't lack one."

The pursuit of "personality" and the concealment of identity and interest may promote some users to boldly express their extreme opinions. The British "English Defense League" that is famous for exclusionism declares that it has 100,000 volunteers on Facebook and large amounts of comments and replies could be received everyday. European scholars point out that the ultra-right organizations advocating anti-Muslim and exclusionism create atmospheres of radical political opinions through social network sites, which could probably create a new round of racial hatred that would result in the inundation of social violence and ultra-individualism.

This reminds us of Marx's analysis of the functions of science and technology in conditions of capitalism: In our times, everything seems to have its opposite side: "It seems that technology wins the victory at the cost of demoralization. With human's increasing control of nature, individuals seem to be on the way of becoming others' slaves or the slaves of their self-despicable behaviors. It seems that even the pure glory of science could only shine on the background of ignorance."

Facing various social problems, neither do we have to exaggerate the functions and influences of the new media on purpose, nor to avoid other deep contradictions and sources. It's an objective reality that different countries have contradictions at diverse development stages. It is also a reality of civil rights improvement and social development for citizens to actively offer advices and suggestions and to participate in social governance through social network sites.

But the key of the problem is that when controlling the new media, the tool of freedom, people should never forget the fact that freedom is never abstract or absolute. It is neither a zone isolated from legal constraints nor an excuse to deviate from rationality or to create disintegration and disorder. Freedom and responsibility are always together. The spirit of freedom should serve the public interests of society. This is the very reason why the spirit of freedom is a beautiful spirit. In fact, "the freedom of the press could only be protected to a largest scale when the highest social responsibilities are persistently and voluntarily defended." This is the conclusion of scholars who have been studiously probing into the actual connotations of press freedom for over hundreds of years.

The era of new media has given a larger speaking right to every individual, and every voice is a participator in the construction of the "speaking field." A microblogging star of China once explained the "netizen" in such a way: "He is a qualified citizen who not only observes laws and disciplines but also has a strong will to positively guide and influence others. He must possess a kind of charm and be able to let people see the beautiful things and hope." Only a fair, rational, objective and responsible "speaking field" could positively interact with other "fields" and promote the national development and social progress.

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