On December 13 2009 the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was injured in Milan (Italy) by a mentally disturbed individual who hit him with a statuette. Shortly afterwards Facebook and other social media have been stormed by discussions to support Berlusconi as well as his attacker, including some conspiracy theories claiming that the whole attack was staged. This caused some politicians to ask for stricter regulations to prevent social media from hosting subversive activities.
On September 11 2001 a series of terrorist attacks in the US killed almost 3,000 people. Conspiracy theorists have been posting videos on YouTube as well as writing books, and they have received responses on YouTube and in writing. I have not read anything about the US government willing to shut down social media or prosecute conspiracy theorists, although the size and relevance of the two events is not even comparable.
In my research about how governments should use technology to better engage with their citizens, I have often said that it is essential for them to reach out to existing social networks and engage in conversations, since there is little hope to control social media.
I am pretty sure that law enforcement authorities and secret services everywhere in the world do spend time infiltrating social networks that may support or point to terrorist and other illegal activities: this is their job and I would be surprised if they did not.
On the other hand, I would hope that other parts of government would engage with social networks to establish or continue a dialogue, to understand what are the deep reasons why decent people express support for despicable actions, gather information about what people want and get inspiration about how to bridge that gap.
But in a country where the immediate reaction by government and some of the opposition is to put social media on a tight leash, there is little hope that the conditions for real and productive engagement will ever be established.
Once again, old Europe should learn what democracy means from our overseas friends and distant relatives: the first amendment may turn to be the most critical success factor for open government and government 2.0.