As London wakes up to scenes of utter carnage, the question of how and why this happened becomes pertinent. One recurring theme from the news coverage last night & this morning was that social media platforms were being used to coordinate the riots by those taking part.
Questions have since been raised that frame social media as a guilty party in these riots, questions such as ‘Did Twitter fuel the Riots?’. First, it should be explained that the apparent method of ‘coordination’ (as coordinated as looting & rioting can be) was through Blackberry messaging – the function that allows Blackberries to communicate with other Blackberries for free. BBMing (as it colloquially referred to) is not part of the ‘traditional’ (is there such a thing?) model of social media. It’s essentially text messaging with a few added bonuses: 1. Group messaging is much easier and, for the rioters, 2. it is much harder to trace than a text message. I wont be directly referring to BBMing when I defend social media, but I’m sure the main point will still apply. I should note that RIM have said that they want to help with police investigations.
It has been reported that 1/3 of all British teenagers have a Blackberry and it appears that this was the primary method of communication. After that, it seems that Twitter & Facebook may have acted as an ‘amplifier’ (TechCrunch Europe). That is to say the locations of fresh riots breaking out were quickly spread over these networks whether to encourage others to join in or to warn people in those areas and express dismay over what was happening. Having spent much of last night following the hashtag #londonriots as well as various locations across London, such as Clapham Junction and Camden, it was clear to me that the overwhelming majority of activity was in the latter camp. Additionally, Facebook pages such as Let’s Get The Riots To Liverpool have been dominated by vitriolic comments of hate (be warned, that page contains explicit language).
The point here is fairly simple; social media is merely a tool. Since the first letter was sent technology has made it easier to communicate with each other and that in turn has made all our endeavours easier and more successful. Luckily, much of our history has involved the exploitation of improved communication methods for the benefit of society & humanity, but every now and then it is used for malicious purposes. The same is true for social media; the platform has the potential for great good but it also has the potential to be abused. As the wise spiritual leader, Ben Parker (Uncle Ben from Spiderman) once said “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Criticising social media would be naive, ill-informed and misguided. The real issue here is not how social media was used to spread the word of riots but why people wanted to riot in the first place. It’s easy to blame teenagers as simply being mindless thugs (which they may be) but we’ve got to ask why they acted like this. Micro-blogging and BBMing is not a cause of violence. I am thankful I haven’t heard any calls for controls to be introduced on social media platforms, any such move would be tantamount to restrictions on free speech and controlling the press. Another factor to consider is that discussions on social media can be monitored in many cases, as a social media monitoring agency that is our bread and butter. This will surely provide police with masses on intelligence on who was involved in spreading the word of the riots for malicious purposes. For example, police are apparently using Flickr to identify the looters.
I do not want to end this article on a sour note, however. I mentioned above that social media could also be used for great good and this is being demonstrated this morning all over the country. @Riotcleanup & Riotcleanup.com have been coordinating clean up operations all over London & nation and as of writing this article the Twitter account has over 30,000 followers. Slightly more controversially, @Catchalooter has been set up to try to identify any looters from amateur pictures & footage. This is an inspiring demonstration of the attitude of the population to the actions of a few misguided children. Social media can be a force for good and, on the evidence at hand, most people intend to use it that way.
Image courtesy of Flickr, Beacon RadioTags:catchalooter, Facebook, london riots, riotcleanup, Twitter