Facebook rioters say incitement was just a joke

Two men in Britain have been sentenced to four years in jail for trying to stir up last week's riots using Facebook. They both posted messages on the social networking site calling for their friends to join in the unrest.

­The two men, Jordan Blackshore and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, later said it was just a joke and no rioting broke out as a result of their posts. Investigative journalist Tony Gosling, however, says that what they say is a joke is nothing less than a serious offense.

“I think it’s a little bit rich of Jordan Blackshore and Perry Keenan to say that this is a joke, because clearly in the sort of situation that we had here in Britain a week ago, that the people who were really afraid to go out because of robbers rampaging around the streets as they were in some of our cities – this was not a joke at all,” Gosling said. “I think, actually, it’s quite right for the courts to take this very seriously. This is incitement to criminal behavior, and of course these people should go through the normal channels and possibly go to jail for what they’ve done, which is inciting rioting – [a] very serious offense.”

With all that, the journalist went on to explain, the way people are sentenced in the UK is itself quite controversial, and a certain backlash against the recent stiff sentences can be expected.

“I think what will happen is, for certain with the more extreme cases with this rioting, is that people will actually get much lower sentences, possibly even be released because they’ve been in jail for a certain amount of time – after they’ve gone to appeal,” he said. “And I know at least one of these two Facebook people, actually, is going to be definitely appealing against this four-year sentence.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the free flow of information can be used for criminal purposes, and Gosling believes that the UK government may already be controlling it to a certain extent. He agrees that making sure that social networks are used properly is a sensible issue, but the government’s reaction should not affect people’s ability to communicate.

“We have to separate the difference between ordinary communications and those kinds of communications which involve incitement to riot, incitement to other kinds of criminal behavior,” he said. “So, I think we’ve got to separate the two. Let everybody communicate freely, but if people are actually inciting criminal offenses and making things worse, generally they are criminals and should be arrested as such.”

­David Bowden, a commentator for InstituteOfIdeas.com, a social issues website, says the authorities' attempts to regain credibility have gone too far.

“Having had their authority visibly shaken last week, with being unable to keep the streets safe, I think that we are seeing quite a superficial and dangerous knee-jerk reaction now from the police and the authorities as they try to regain that authority,” he said. “It’s superficial, because we’ve seen people being handed quite severe sentences for often playing quite a minor role in the riots and often for crimes such as stealing a bottle of water or some ice cream.”

“It’s dangerous because we are now seeing a knee-jerk reaction to people using social networks to say they want to have a riot, even if they haven’t followed that up with organizing the riot itself,” Bowden added.

­Jordan Blackshore and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan became the first to be sentenced for participation in the mass civil unrest that swept the UK. In a separate case, three men were jailed for between 16 months and two years for looting and handling stolen goods. Nearly 1,300 suspected rioters have so far been brought before the courts in the UK.