Now, I’m not a huge one for using web applications as a means civic communication – I tend to believe that communicating with your representatives is much better done in a public space rather than a private one like Facebook. However, this story (on the face of it) is quite disturbing.
Transport for London recently announced the removal of the N213 night bus service between Croydon and Sutton. For many people, particularly young people going out of a night in Croydon, although this service wasn’t overcrowded it was important. A number of people on Facebook started a group to protest this, and took to the streets of Wallington last night.
Our local MP, Tom Brake, has been a Facebook user for years now and has tended to be pretty good about using it intelligently: joining good local causes, using it as another way of letting people know what he’s up to, and that kind of thing. So, he also joined the “Save the N213” group and posted various letters that he’d sent to the Mayor / TFL.
Now, however, Facebook has suspended his account: it’s like he doesn’t exist on the site any more. No comments, no profile, unceremoniously de-listed from the various groups.
Why has this happened? Well, according to LibDem Voice, “his account was automatically suspended when their system detected an unusually large amount of traffic to and from his account“. That is to say, the protest against the N213 – which Tom was participating in, not really organising – was too successful, and Facebook assumed something bad was happening.
MPs need to be easily accessible by their constituents. On issues like public transport, children and young adults are particularly important because they don’t have the option driving. Representing them effectively means, realistically, being able to contact the local community via Facebook (and services like it) because that’s what these people use in the same way older generations write letters to the local newspaper.
It’s difficult to know what to do about this. It’s difficult to see how a kind of public service obligation could be imposed on something like Facebook; equally, setting up something genuinely public and civic-minded is unlikely to attract the demographic we’re talking about.