Much has been made over the role of social media in organizing and supporting the Arab Spring uprisings, with media types heaping praise on Twitter, Facebook and others for helping millions of people shake off the shackles of dictatorship.
But now, reports are circulating that those same sainted networks and in particular, Blackberry Messenger, played major roles in this weekend’s violent rioting in London following the police shooting of Mark Duggan on Thursday. The Telegraph reported on Monday that “teenage gang members” used Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) to both “organise the mayhem” and to post pictures of themselves looting shops. BBM emerged as the telecom tool of choice because messages over the network are free, instantaneous, can be disseminated to large groups of people, and, crucially and unlike Twitter or Facebook, closed to public viewing.
What is going on in Britain? Tottenham riots: Expression of community anger or criminal opportunism?
Reports about the rioting, often from first-hand accounts and some containing grainy video or pictures, spread like wildfire over Twitter and edging out coverage from traditional news services. Meanwhile, some Twitter users posted messages suggesting places for rioters to hit next; this prompted the Met’s assistant deputy commissioner to declare that he would consider arresting Twitter users who appear to be inciting violence and Harry Phibbs at The Daily Mail to suggest that Twitter aggravated the rioting.
Gasped The Telegraph, “Throughout the night, Twitter was flooded with street-slang-filled accounts of the riot. As the orgy of violence reached a crescendo, a BBC crew were attacked while delivering a live broadcast, forcing the channel and Sky News to withdraw their satellite trucks. In their absence, many turned to Twitter for a stream of eyewitness reports and photographs posted by local residents.”
But is this social unrest in the 21st century – or is the media blowing the role of social media and communications in the rioting out of proportion?
- Little evidence of organization on the Twitter feeds. The BBC’s technology reporter, Iain McKenzie, cautioned that claims of a Twitter, BBM riot may be over-hyped. McKenzie trolled the Twitter feeds, searching for evidence that rioters had turned to the microblogging site to plan their attacks, but found much more evidence of media outlets misquoting tweets to play up the riot angle. McKenzie spoke to Freddie Benjamin, a research manager at Mobile Youth, who said that much of the noise on Twitter was probably just that. McKenzie did acknowledge that some rioters probably did use BBM to encourage others to join them, however, because BBM is private, it will be difficult to determine what extent that incited others to violence or impacted where violence erupted. Another expert McKenzie spoke with, Dr Chris Greer, a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at London’s City University, said that BBM and smartphones may have helped rioters organize themselves once on the streets, but it was unlikely that the technology incited people to violence. Ultimately, more research is needed to determine what the role technology may have played in the riots.
- BBM, not Twitter. On the heels of some media reports putting Twitter at the epicenter of the rioting, The Guardian’s Josh Halliday suggested that it was actually BBM that had a greater impact. One BBM message, for example, sent to large numbers of people, yelled, “Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”
Mikey’s got something to say about the Tottenham riots – and it’s not in support of the police (warning: bad language abounds):
- Technology is just a tool. In response to what he called The Daily Mail’s “blunderbluss of blame” – the paper described the rioting as a “Twitter frenzy” and implied that it was exacerbated by the use of social media – Rich Trenholm at tech blog Crave.CNET reminded, “As always, technology is just a tool. Those who were intent on causing trouble could have communicated via Twitter, BBM or elaborate hieroglyphics, and they would still be to blame, not the tools.” The best evidence of that is in the fact that while some messages seemed to be inciting Twitterers to gather in Oxford Circus for another round of rioting, others were pleading with the rioters to stop.
More on social networking, revolution