You almost have to feel for the police in Scotland over the past few days. Unable to spend their week beating up kids on bikes, shooting each other, executing men in taxis, and ensuring that teenagers are locked up for heinous crimes like stealing bottles of water from Lidl and swearing at cops, polis north of the border have faced something of an identity crisis, unable to join in the spree of attempting to justify their own existence as the upholders of all that’s good in society and thus undeserving of massive spending cuts.
However, to say that the lack of any riots in Scotland has left the polis sitting around twiddling their thumbs would be vastly underestimating their own resourcefulness. No, so eager were they for some of the action, they actually went out and invented some imaginary riots. And so it is that now a number of teenagers across Scotland are sitting in prison – remanded in custody for naively making Facebook pages for “riots” in their hometown – with, in all likelihood, no intention of ever actually rioting, looting or doing anything more than pissing about on Facebook.
Few would dispute that making a Facebook page calling for a riot on your local high street is, in the current political climate, a pretty stupid thing to do. However, it’s also true that creating something that most people with any vague sense of how online social media works would construe as no more than a prank is not a crime worthy of potentially weeks of imprisonment.
But this clampdown – hailed in typically self-aggrandising fashion on the Tayside Police website – comes part of wider steps to control and legislate over social media and the internet, particularly in light of recent hysteria over encrypted Blackberry messages being used to co-ordinate disorder in English cities. This culminated in an announcement from David Cameron today that the government may seek to disrupt and disable social media networks including Blackberry messaging and Twitter during periods of civil unrest – on par with moves taken by faltering dictatorships in the Middle East over recent months. Of course, attempts to censor the internet are doomed to fail – if people are unable to communicate using one website, they’ll simply move elsewhere, and short of shutting down the entire internet and mobile networks, the authorities will struggle to stifle communications.
But it’s worrying the extent to which the Scottish judiciary have vastly overreacted to these cases, in their successful attempts to deny bail to, so far, two teenagers accused of inciting riots on Facebook. A further three – aged 14, 16 and 18 – will appear in Dundee Sheriff Court on Friday morning. Where perhaps some friendly guidance or a few stern words would’ve been appropriate, the police have instead opted to pin heavy charges on several young people who, we’re being led to believe, are criminal masterminds organising mass disorder from their bedrooms. If that seems fantastical, it’s because it is.
A moral panic has set in among the political and legal establishment across the UK, with any sense of leniency thrown out of the window amid a clamouring for dehumanised “looters” and “rioters” to be locked up, have access to welfare cut off and be evicted from their homes. This failure to even acknowledge that there are reasons for the riots beyond “criminality pure and simple”, as David Cameron put it, will only serve to increase antagonisms that whole layers of alienated young people feel towards the authorities and society at large.
The Facebook sweep this week does, however, reinforce the need for everyone – political activist, wannabe rioter or internet prankster alike – to be vigilant in what they post on all social networks. In the current climate, even an unauthorised demonstration could be viewed as inciting disorder, and in another classic case of old people not getting the internets, weeks in jail could await.