It has been widely publicised that the riots we are experiencing throughout the UK have been instigated via social networks. But what is the true role of social networks here, and should we be preventing these services from exacerbating such situations?
There’s no way you could have missed the latest news stories, groups of youths within the communities of England have been causing unrest in many major cities, causing criminal damage, burning down buildings seemingly indiscriminately and looting from all manner of businesses.
It’s said that one of the reasons the riots have been so easy to organise and instigate is because participants have easy access to a variety of social networking platforms, making it increasingly easy to spread the word and collect a following of rioters and looters.
Two of the platforms said to have played a role in developing these scenes are popular micro-blogging website Twitter, and RIM (Blackberry’s) instant messaging service BBM. Facebook has also played a role in the riots with ‘campaigns’ being created to encourage more people to get involved.
Police are now turning to the platform which has been used as a medium to instigate recent events, by using similar methods to catch the culprits. The Met used Twitter to announce the release of pictures of individuals involved in the rioting and has also been tweeting other policing developments around the riots to keep the community updated.
So how could the government look to restrict Twitter users? A highly controversial technique used in Eqypt during riots against government corruption, was to completely block all users from within Egypt from using Twitter. This would be a way to quickly cripple the way in which users have organised and publicise recent events, but there could also be a backlash from businesses and the general public which depend on the website to operate. It would have also hampered the clean-up operation which many affected communities are participating and organising via social networks. Why should the whole country go without something for the sake of a few criminals?
The Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, Steve Kavanagh has claimed that users of these platforms, who try to provoke violence, could be arrested. However, Freddie Benjamin, a research manager at Mobile Youth believes that while many users may be inciting such actions, very small proportions are involved in the events.
This could mean a range of innocent parties being arrested even if they have no involvement in the disturbance, and the severity and intent of a tweet is down to everyone’s personal perception of it, as tweeters may claim they were joking or being sarcastic about events. We don’t want to create a situation where people are terrified that they will get arrested for making a joke!
BBM has been the most commonly used tool in organising meet-ups of large groups to cause chaos all over the country. Its popularity appears to be down to the fact that it’s a private, encrypted social network which still has the capability of reaching many Blackberry users. The Blackberry appears to be the most popular handset among these youths and it has enabled rioters to quickly exchange information and contact details such as unique PIN codes which allows fellow Blackberry users to contact them.
Research In Motion (RIM) the makers of the Blackberry have stated they will co-operate with the police and the home office in any way they can, so that any guilty parties can be caught and arrested. However, this will inevitably prompt privacy issues with Blackberry users and could have a detrimental effect on their reputation if users feel private messages are no longer private.
It should also be noted that in these chaotic times, social media has not just been used to instigate and incite violence. As mentioned earlier, social media has also been used for the good of society with residents of the affected areas using social networking websites to organise the clean-up of their demolished communities, through the hashtag #riotcleanup.
On top of that, Facebook groups have been created with members declaring their backing and support for the police forces who are challenged with restoring order in the UK, and the metropolitan police have also used FlickR and TumblR as a way of exposing and identifying some of the criminals involved in the UK riots through CCTV footage.
Misuse of Twitter
It appears that social media, and in particular Twitter, will always be involved in major news stories. Recently a number of high profile footballers have been fined by either the Football Association (The F.A) or their clubs for misuse of the social networking website, with one team threatening legal action upon their players if they criticise their club via the social network.
In June, a drugs trial costing £6million in Manchester fell through because one of the Jurors contacted a defendant via Facebook, which inevitably led to the Juror facing jail time. Jurors are strictly prohibited from using the Internet in any way shape or form when deciding on the outcome of a court case.
This goes to show the influence social media has on our society, and how we can never underestimate the power of it. Personal issues, political views or work matters should be carefully considered before putting them online for the world to see, because once you have posted it, there’s probably no going back on your words.
Although these new channels of communication have been extensively used throughout the riots for all the wrong reasons, as well as the right ones, we can’t place the blame squarely on them. Wouldn’t these people have found a way to communicate with each other in some way shape or form? There was no Twitter or BBM during the events of 1985, yet rioting still took place.
The issues are much deeper than that. Perhaps these youths feel like the consequences aren’t strong enough? Or maybe they just don’t have a purpose in life outside of making the lives of others a misery? Either way we should look to the root of the problems we face in society, not simply point our fingers at the nearest thing we can find to blame.