How The London Riots Showed The Dark Side Of Social Media [Opinion]

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london riotsAs I sit here wondering how things will pan out for London after the riots, I can’t help but turn towards Twitter for relevant information about my local area. The center of Croydon – a 10 minute drive away from me – was officially ablaze. The media is repeating the same tired footage and quotes from various politicians, and everyone is using the events to forward their own political goals or views of society. Yet all I want to know is – are my wife and I safe here?

I turned to Twitter and pulled up the #sutton hashtag. What I was shown was frankly terrifying – the high street overrun with looters; police arresting an 11 year old; HMV smashed in; Nando’s chicken restaurant attacked (along with cries of “OMG no, anything but that!”); ASDA first looted, then up in flames.

I’m scared, and I’m not afraid to admit that. All I ever hear about is how Twitter is changing the world by providing up to date news reports before the mainstream media – I’m certainly not seeing this on the BBC yet. Twitter will destroy traditional news outlets, they say. Social media is literally causing revolutions! But none of what I’ve read is in fact true. Nothing is burning, nothing is vandalized – the local council and police cannot verify a single incident occurring there.

london riots

riots in london

The following day, Sutton council said the previous night’s tweets were entirely unfounded, and that tonight they would be providing verified information from the police. That’s a relief. So if I want accurate up to the minute information, I have to specifically follow only reliable sources then? Wait – doesn’t that ruin the whole point of Twitter? I thought being able to get the news from the average Joe on the street was kind of the whole point. If I can’t trust any of it, I may as well just watch Sky News!

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The attitude of some Twitter users continues to shock me, with some people seeing the whole affair as a chance for traditional British humor to shine, and some even brazenly inciting violence as well as proclaiming their involvement. In general though, it was all just rumors and people asking for more information. It’s hard to tell how this is going to end, but for now, this tweet seems to summarize the situation around me quite well.

riots in london

Watching the official #riots hashtag seems like a stream of nonsense to be honest. I’ll admit, it’s almost addictive as crack though – “another 19 new tweets!” – she teases me.

riots in london

 

So Is Twitter Organizing the Revolution?

Certainly not. While traditional media outlets have been busy demonising Twitter and Facebook for playing a part in organizing the riots, they are completely wrong. No one would seriously publish their next targets on Twitter or Facebook for the simple reason that everyone, including the police, could see it. While I have no doubt that Twitter and Facebook have played a crucial role in the revolutions we see in the Arab springs, they have played no part in the London riots.

The BlackBerry, however, is a different story. I wouldn’t personally class the device as any kind of ‘social media’; BlackBerries are single handedly the most popular communication device among teenagers in Britain. There are two very simple reasons for this.  One, they are free on a rental plan – even my iPhone cost me £100 with a two-year contract. And 2, they have an extensive FREE private messaging system, with the unique ability to broadcast very easily to every single one of your contacts.

london riots

It’s a feature similar to the upcoming iOS5 iMessage ability but the broadcasting ability is very much unique. There remains no way to monitor the system, unlike Facebook or Twitter. In fact, the BlackBerry is the method of choice for teenagers in the Emirates too, to talk about the government without being arrested. And while police are able to obtain a warrant for an individual BlackBerry user’s activity, they can’t simply ask for anyone who messaged the word “riot” over that period.

Conclusion

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Blackberry messenger system was heavily used by thugs to organize their next targets – convictions have begun already. During the 7/7 bombings, police exercised a power to actually shut down major communications networks such as the BlackBerry – why the decision to not to do so this time will be one question on many peoples minds. The main argument against this kind of widespread action is that the rioters would have simply moved on to other apps or means to spread the word, whilst thousands of innocent BBM users would have also been affected. Regardless, the BBM was the tool of choice for these riots.

Personally, I have lost all faith in Twitter, and this is the last time I ever try to get accurate information from it. The trouble with crowdsourcing anything is that 99% of the crowd are idiots. My solution for now is to stick to Facebook. At least there I can trust first hand accounts from real friends.

I’m sure my fellow writers will have their own take on this, and I’d invite you to comment too if you think I’m way off on this one – but bear in mind that what I’ve written is from personal experience and relevant to the London riots only. I’d especially like to hear from any other UK people who were using Twitter during the riots, and how accurate they found it to be; or if there are any BlackBerry users out there who received a riot related message broadcast. Please, let’s keep this discussion on the topic of tech though, and not get distracted by the cause of the riots.  This is a tech blog, not a party political conference.

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