UK Riots Empowered by Social Media and Blackberry BBM?


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Flash Mob Pillow-fight in Madrid

The organizing power of social media platforms, combined with text-messaging services such as Blackberry’s free BBM, is huge, but has primarily been used for entertainment since flash-mobs emerged in 2003. Now, however, the pillow-fights and Christmas carols that made flash-mobbing famous have turned into riots and violence. Groups around the world have traditionally used virtual networking through text messaging, Twitter, MySpace and facebook, among others, to coordinate activities such as dancing and singing. Unfortunately, rioters are now using the same technology to wreak havoc in the UK, which begs a few questions about the culpability of these services.

Blackberry’s BBM Service

Considering the fact that, according to TechCrunch‘s sources, the rioters are relying heavily on Blackberry’s BBM service to coordinate, some are saying that Blackberry should shut down or limit the service until the riots are over. Blackberry has stated that they will cooperate with authorities, but if the authorities don’t ask, that may not be enough.

“As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement  and regulatory officials.  Similar to other technology providers in the UK we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces.” (Press release: Aug 8, 2011.)

Twitter, Social Media, and the UK Riots

UK Rioters using facebook to coordinate: Image courtesy of facebook

How much responsibility do Twitter and facebook bear for the content of riot-inciting Tweets, messages and status updates? A lot, according to UK newspapers. These social media platforms could take action to prevent the use of their software for violent and illegal purposes, since it is possible to limit usage based on a set of basic criteria. Although there are methods of stopping the rioters, most could easily be circumvented by tech-savvy users:

  • Restricting traffic by geographical location: Whether social media looks at the reported local area of users, or even the source IP address, the user could get around this restriction by either reporting an incorrect location, or logging in through a proxy server to display an alternate location.
  • Restricting comments by keyword: This method would make coordination more challenging, by forcing rioters to use alternate terminology, but could simply result in the use of code-words to achieve the same violent result.

Restricting Access to Prevent Abuse

In reality, although the various methods of restricting access and communications between rioters could provide some degree of damage-control, it would be difficult to completely eliminate the problem without shutting down social media and text messaging entirely. Social media services aren’t obligated to take any action, much less such drastic action, without direction from the UK Home Office, or police agencies. It remains to be seen whether the UK government ask Blackberry or Twitter to shut down the services rioters are using to coordinate everything from looting to attacks.

UPDATE: According to UK residents, Twitter and facebook are now being used by concerned citizens in clean-up efforts. The anti-mob, headed by citizens counteracting the havoc caused by the rioters, has been remarkably effective in repairing damage.

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