08/11/2011 05:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword

Despite all the financial turmoil in the world right now, that news has been shouldered aside long enough to edge in the news about the ongoing riots in England. I am not altogether certain what brought these riots on, despite reading several articles. It appears someone was killed by the police, but it also seems that the divide between rich and poor in these areas has been used as a reason for rioting.

As with most things, I am sure the reasons are complex and have been building for some time. Riots over political, social, or economic issues are nothing new. What is relatively new, however, is how social media has changed how these events happen and how people perceive or react to the information provided via these mediums.

We all know how Twitter has brought people together on fairly short notice in flash mobs to sing or dance. We have seen the YouTube videos and thought, isn't this fun. The reverse side of this has been tweeting to bring together flash mobs to do violence or incite riots, as in England and the U.S. cities of Philadelphia and Milwaukee

I watched a video on the BBC of two girls who had taken part in a riot and were being interviewed by a reporter. They referred to the riots as "brilliant." They could hardly wait to participate again and said the cause of the rioting was rich people. When the reporter pointed out that much of the damage being done was to middle class businesses in their town, the girls stated that the owners had money and they didn't and that provided all the reason they needed to engage in such acts. The girls ended by saying the rioters had the power now and would show that police were no longer in control.

I find that rather frightening and have been quite dismayed by it, but today I was pleased to see another twist in these events. Some people in these riot-torn towns have decided to change the flow of these events and have once again used Twitter as a change agent. They tweeted about when and where to gather and help clean up the mess that the rioters caused, organizing themselves quickly and collaboratively. Soon many people arrived with brooms and dustpans and began the clean up

All of this caused me to reflect back on something that I heard over the 4th of July weekend. I spent it in Twin Falls, Idaho participating in the Minidoka Pilgrimage. Minidoka was one of the camps where Japanese-Americans from the Seattle area were confined until World War II was over. The pilgrimage occurs once a year to remember what happened and to discuss the civil liberty issues.

On the second afternoon of the pilgrimage, a panel of survivors from Minidoka talked about their past experiences. Following that, there was a panel of young people who were there because they were descendants of those incarcerated at Minidoka. These young people were asked to each answer this question, did they think it was possible this type of event (rounding up and incarcerating citizens because of ethnicity) could happen again in the United States.
Every one of them said no. When asked why they didn't think it couldn't happen again, they said because of social media. I was stunned because, as an educator and librarian, I believe history does tend to repeat itself and we don't seem to learn as much as we think we do. I also know you can't believe everything you see on the Internet or relayed via social media. It seemed unbelievable that social media could stop a government action or the public anger that accompanies an event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

But after seeing these two videos today, I feel some hope. There are good people in the world using social media for positive things and that helps counterbalance the bad things being done with it. It all comes down to the individual. So, maybe that panel of young adults was right. Maybe social media can help change our future and how things happen. It's a good thought. What do you think?