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!

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.

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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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Comments (13)
  • mick register

    I have twitter, and find it absolutely useless. The only things I ever receive on twitter are spam. The only things I ever feel like sending? Spam.

    Needless to say, after about half a day of use, the account that bears my name found its-self abandoned.

    • James Bruce

      Absolutely. I do keep trying with it, and have a semi abandoned account myself, but each time I just find nothing fulfilling and just can’t see the point of it. I dont have that many 128 character epiphanies to be honest. 

      It is good for spamming though, eh?

  • Esteba

    Well, it’s as usual, teenagers being teenagers.
    Obviously you can’t expect them to accurately report anything they see, moreso when they’re just “having a blast” reporting the “riots”.
    Nice article, as it has been commented before, raises a few important points, the Orwellian thing being the most important.

    (Now I’m just going to troll: “It’s a feature similar to the upcoming iOS5 iMessage ability” can you be more of a fanboy? It’s THE OTHER WAY AROUND! The “upcoming iOS5 Message thingy is SIMILAR to the BB messenger”. I hate BB, but I can’t stand fanboyery, everything was coming along nicely with my reading, until I read that ridiculous line.)

  • Cell Travis

    A crisis tests the best in us while simultaneously exposing the ugliness that’s an inevitable consequence of unrestrained mayhem. At the end of the day, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, even Blackberry, are just that — platforms. It’s the intention of the person on the other side that decides whether he wants to be the good Samaritan in the face of mindless destruction, or resort to the kind of rumor-mongering that does no good.

    The real-time nature of social networking means there’s no dearth of people who (literally) stoke the fire.

    • James Bruce

      True, but – in terms of platform capabilities, I think they all vary. Not many people involved in the riots would have sat there creating a facebook event when the riots moved to a new location for instance – and other mobiles certainly dont allow free texting as most would consider that spam. Perhaps there should be limits placed and restrictions on these kind of public broadcast systems – if only for the sake of preventing spam messages (which are really common on the BB, I read). 

  • James Bruce

    thanks Jeffery, lots to digest there. 

    I would tend to agree you about stopping social media being irrelevant. It doesnt really tackle the core problem, and doesnt more harm to personal freedoms of the many than to the criminals. I’m not sure about providing an incentive to *not* commit crime though. I think you should damn sure people don’t have the inclination in the first place. I dont really want to get any deeper in that though, as this is supposed to about technology. ;)

    As for the facebook arrests, not sure which you are reffering to in particular; but those that kid that got 4 years for making a facebook *event* to go mess up the town deserved everything he got. It clearly wasn’t a joke, so as far as I’m concerned he’s a little shit that got what was coming to him. Clearly though, that kind of sentencing should be applied across the board. 

  • Andrei

    Many months ago I followed the #pman hashtag to get news about the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova. Back then it was much easier to tell apart those really involved, those “carrying the message” and those who were just commenting.

    Bear in mind though that at that point there were probably a few dozens twitter enabled phones in the entire capital city of the country. This brings along some enhanced peer control, if not genuine responsibility.

    But once a medium hits the message it becomes (pardon the pun) a mass-medium. No better than the masses themselves, probably worse than the individuals that compose  the masses. 

    As long as social media is handled by the early adopters it produces some kind of a moral and intellectual  effect. In the hands of mainstream population it has a rather different outcome. In the hands of rioters, again, a different effect. But, really, there should be no surprise in this. There is no magic in the networks, mainframes, twitters, phones and iPhones. Seriously, there isn’t – they are us.

    • James Bruce

      So you’re saying we’re going to have to keep inventing new ways to get the message out, and as soon as it hits the general populace, it’s useless? … You know, I think you might be spot on there. 

    • Andrei

      Continuous invention is half of the answer. The other half is retro-fitting. While FB and Twitter are the buzz, people still hang out on forums (much like this one), Yahoo Groups, IRC and, legend says, Usenet. Many of these have no cool factor, a mediocre user experience and high ugliness level. But I have discovered that people happily pay this price if it drives the majority away and leave their niche community alone.

      Not every service can be retrofitted i think. I fear FB and Twitter will fight to keep their profitable youthfulness to the end and therefore will age badly. But maybe their users will have a say in changing this.

      BTW, I am sure that, given time, the concerned citizens of UK would have found the right channel to communicate. Fortunately you did not have to wait that much :)

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For more details, please read our disclosure.