PROs warn Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry to 'limit help' to the Government

Tech PR professionals have warned that social networking sites must be careful about sharing data with the authorities after being summoned to Whitehall.

Social media companies: summoned by the Home Office
Social media companies: summoned by the Home Office

News emerged on Friday that the Government has invited Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion, the makers of BlackBerry, to the Home Office on 25 August to discuss their roles in the riots across England.

Facebook was the first of the three to confirm it will attend the meeting. 

Sophy Tobias, Facebook head of comms for UK Ireland, said: ‘We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK.’

Twitter European comms manager Rachel Bremer told PRWeek that she could ‘confirm our attendance' but declined to comment further.

Although reports suggest that RIM will also attend, when asked to confirm reports Hannah Lewis, corporate PR manager of Research In Motion, only sent the statement the company released on 11 August to communicate its stance: ‘Further to the statements made by the British Prime Minister and Home Secretary, we welcome the opportunity for consultation together with other companies in the technology and telecoms industry.’

EML Wildfire MD Richard Parker said the situation put the brands in a delicate position. He commented: ‘From a purely PR standpoint, there is a careful juggling act for Facebook, Twitter and especially Research in Motion to perform. While they must be seen to be doing everything possible to help track down and eliminate illegal activity, they will also want to be very careful about making any sort of suggestion that they will support government interference or censure of the networks they have created for their users.’

The move by the Home Office comes after Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to an emergency session of Parliament warning of a social media crack-down.

The PM said: ‘We are looking at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.’

Robin Grant, MD, We Are Social, warned: ‘They should look out for the interests of their users and not offer assistance unwarranted by current laws, which already give the Government draconian powers to do the very things Cameron has mooted.'

Pete Hendrick, MD, Rocket, also felt that the social networks ‘must not accept any blame for the riots, which are a result of deep-rooted social problems’. He did, however, state: ‘They should, and I believe will, co-operate with the Government. In the digital economy, reputation is everything, and they’ll all be looking to avoid having public sentiment turn against them if they don’t play ball.’

Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry (for its BBM messaging service), have all been associated with the story of the riots after reports suggested that some rioters used them to plan disruption or incite others.

A number of people have appeared in court charged with online incitement, including Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, from Warrington, and Jordan Blackshaw, from Marston, who were jailed for four years for planning a riot on Facebook.

10Yetis MD Andy Barr commented: 'It is worth noting that much good is done via social media, including the riot clean-up activity, something we would also encourage the companies to get across in their meetings with the Home Office.’

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