Is social media, with its ubiquity and urgency, a tool to dispel myths, verify facts and rapidly propagate truth?

Or is it the work of the devil himself?

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron speaks in the House of Commons, London, on 12 December 2011. Photo by AP

Cameron’s alacrity to blame Twitter was understandable in the context of the developments in the Middle East. One of the heroes of the Arab spring was the social media and social networking technology that helped protesters in Tunisia and Egypt organize.

But did rioters in London, Birmingham and Manchester really use social networks to organize raids on shops, and attack police?

The results of a massive study by a group of diverse British academics, the Joint Information Systems Committee, suggest the opposite. After analysing 2.6 million tweets posted in relation to the riots, the researchers told The Guardian newspaper that only a tiny fraction were used to organize or encourage the rioting. In fact, the researchers found, Twitter may have actually helped in two ways: to fact-check rumours, and to arrange for post-riot clean-up activities.

The researchers were, however, somewhat critical of mainstream media outlets and their use of Twitter. While these outlets play a role in rumour management, lead researcher Rob Procter said: “...we do find the mainstream media is perfectly capable of picking up and publishing unverified information from social media without adhering to the usual standard of fact-checking."

So rather than clamping down on all Twitter users, Cameron should perhaps only keep an eye on those unreliable, trigger-happy journalists.

Are democratic governments justified in seeking curbs on social media? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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