Social networking fanning London's flames?

The British cities of London and Birmingham experience serious rioting. Rioters reportedly exploit Twitter and BlackBerry's free Messenger system to facilitate looting.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

There's something slightly eerie when BlackBerry and Twitter, instead of, say, social policy and policing, are central to reports of rioting.

Tonight, I'm hoping that my parents will be OK in the British city of Birmingham, where 35 rioters have reportedly been arrested. In London, fires burn, as do sympathies.

Simultaneously, I'm reading headlines suggesting that BlackBerry's free Messenger system is the prime choice for those who choose to wrap their Mom's hankies above their noses and raid Armani stores and burger joints in order to show what they're made of.

BlackBerry's U.K. arm immediately took to Twitter to distance itself, at least slightly, from its own alleged customers.

"We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," the company said on its Twitter feed.

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

However, BlackBerry reportedly wouldn't be drawn on just what kind of assistance it is willing to offer to the police. The company offered no further tweets, no further comment.

Messenger communication is encrypted and the Guardian says BlackBerry had declared in the past that it is unable to unencrypt BBM messages. Perhaps the chaps at LulzSec could help.

See also, from Silicon.com: Is London in the middle of its first social media riot?

While BlackBerry was helping police with its inquiries, the deputy assistant commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, Steve Kavanagh, reportedly stated that "really inflammatory, inaccurate" Twitter postings were, in large part, the cause of riots that have seen several areas of London ablaze and residents of two London districts told to leave their homes.

"Social media and other methods have been used to organize these levels of greed and criminality," he told a press conference. He also reportedly declared that those who posted such messages risked arrest.

Yet the more one reads these references to technology, the more one wonders whether, as usual, the focus is on the machine, rather than the individual behind it. It's odd to read headlines such as the BBC's "Is Technology to Blame for the London Riots?", as if technology can force you to do anything more than cease reading books and newspapers.

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Even if you happen to adore social media, you can decide what you want to look for and find whatever it is that makes you feel better.

Within that same BBC post, for example, there are beautiful nuggets that purport to show how technology is being used to inflame the riots.

For example, the Daily Mail reported that one tweet read: "'I hear Tottenham's going coco-bananas right now. Watch me roll." This suggests the poster, called AshleyAR, was ready to punch and riot. Yet the Mail, which happens to have a certain political agenda, reportedly managed to omit the last part of the tweet. It actually read: "Watch me roll up with a spud gun."

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET
Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

If Twitter is truly the barometer, then perhaps it's worth mentioning the hashtag #stoprioting. Then there's the hashtag #LondonRiots, where wisdom and garbage are being disseminated in the same social basket.

Who, though, could not be moved by this from poster Lulu Rose: "The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV #londonriots."

Technology does have a negative role--when those who use it have a negative purpose. In a literal sense, it helps them with that purpose. But does it really give them that negative purpose?

If you rely on technology for your information, here's a selection of information, courtesy of posters to the #londonriots hashtag. You decide whether they make you feel good or bad.

Firstly, the Turkish community of Dalston, London, took one look at the rioting thugs and chased them away.

Another tweeter helpfully offered a link to a YouTube video from Sky News, which I have embedded. The reporter asked one of the looters what she thought she was doing. "Getting my taxes back," she said.

Someone called @ged suggested that BlackBerry should simply shut down its Messenger system. Another tweeter, Esme Vos, offered this: "bankers looted the economy, now rioters are looting shops #londonriots."

Technology works for those we agree with and it works for those we don't.

You decide what role social media played in these riots. It will depend on your politics, your sympathies, and your attitude toward technology. But technology didn't cause anything here. It just made some things a little easier. Isn't that what it was always supposed to be for?