By Tim Hardy
On Christmas Eve in 1913 in Calumet, Michigan at a crowded party for striking mine workers and their families, seventy-three people were trampled to death in a panicked rush for the exits when someone shouted “Fire!”. Fifty-nine of the dead were children. There was no fire.
Woody Guthrie’s song “1913 Massacre” blames the event on strike-breaking thugs hired by the mines and it is a dramatic illustration on the necessary limits free societies place on free speech. Reckless and malicious speech – popularly described as “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre” – is not a protected or guaranteed right.
David Cameron’s comments about social media have led to hysterical headlines in the Independent and elsewhere claiming that the UK government will try to shut down social media.
This will never happen.
Technically, politically, economically it is impossible.
Technically, it is impossible. Those who want to use communications networks to cause trouble will find ways around the censor – as will many who want to use it for good – but the danger is that those who desperately want to know if their families and friends are safe will be left in the dark, creating more fear and uncertainty at times of unrest and tempting them to make potentially dangerous journeys rather than stay safe indoors.
Politically, it is impossible. Those who used social networks to share vital information when press and police were absent will not stand for a government that tries to close their only avenue of communication. Nor will those who used the technology to squash false rumours and to bring help to those who needed it as well as to organise clean-ups and donation drives for individuals and communities devastated by events. Nor will the brave journalists who used social media to crowd-source intelligence so that they could report on what was happening around the country.
Economically it would be a disaster. Business would not stand for it. Britain prides itself on its creative industries and – leaving aside debates about copyright infringement – these are industries that can only flourish where speech is not censored. The City will never accept a state that would be willing to shut down the Blackberry network in the middle of the trading day because trouble was kicking off down the road in Hackney.
To consider shutting down social networks because one person might shout “fire!” is as willfully ignorant and dangerous as suggesting that after someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded theatre we should switch off all the lights.
David Cameron may have shown extremely poor judgement over the last week but even he is not that stupid.