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Mobile Phones and Social Networking: Great for Organizing Riots?

written by: •edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 8/22/2011

A surprising outcome of the recent riots in London and around the UK was the use of social networking and mobile phones as a means of organizing protests and subsequent cleanups.

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    One of the things we will remember about 2011 is how we discovered the true power of mobile phones and social media. From North Africa to the UK, Twitter, Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger and mobile devices were used to not only formulate protests of very different kinds, but also to evade attempts by the authorities to clamp down on protesters and rioters.

    The clearest example hails from the United Kingdom and the riots that started following the police shooting of a local man in North London, and trouble soon spread to other cities around England.

    While the Arab Spring protests apparently overthrew governments in Tunisia and Egypt, however, the problems in the UK were more akin to the L.A. gang riots of the 1990s, with the majority of those involved spending more time engaging in looting than demanding a change to society.

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    Mobile Phones for the Poor

    Sadly the noble demand for a change in government that spread across the Middle East wasn’t reflected in the UK, despite recent questions over the economy.

    Instead, rioters destroyed shopping malls and businesses in a display of wanton vandalism that the police initially had no method for countering. Despite a force of thousands and access to a variety of crowd control methods and techniques (recently seen in action against the far less destructive student fee protesters) the Metropolitan Police were unable to deal with the total mobility of the protesters.

    There seems to be two main reasons for this. The first is the complete unpreparedness of the law enforcement body to foresee any trouble resulting from what appeared to be an unnecessary shooting in an area known for racial tensions.

    The second is the use of technology in the form of standard Internet-connected smartphones and more specifically BlackBerrys.

    So, what was witnessed in footage from the UK (which was shown around the world) as stores were smashed and ransacked and a major Sony distribution center was burned to the ground was an organized riot made possible by mobile phones - devices that you might think are surprising possessions for people rioting under the flag of poverty.

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    Organizing a Riot

    The London Riots It’s quite remarkable that so much anarchy can be caused via a simple mobile phone, but as demonstrated in the aftermath of the riots, this was made even easier thanks to social networking services.

    Naturally Twitter and Facebook were the focus of the usual mass media demonizing of technologies that are not easily understood, but these were mere sideshows to the main tool. After all, it’s easy for governments in the West to persuade Facebook to remove pages and profiles; Twitter meanwhile prefers the more open route of making sure that everyone’s conversation is left out in the open in the spirit of free speech.

    They’re clearly not the right tools to be using if you need to covertly send instructions to fellow troublemakers, as they can easily be intercepted.

    In fact, the real surprise about the entire display of anarchic consumerism isn’t that mobile phones were used to coordinate looting and subsequent escapes; it’s that BlackBerry phones were used.

    We’re regularly submitted to all manner of pro-Apple material in newspapers and on TV, but it seems that a vast chunk of their target market are snapping up BlackBerry smartphones instead, simply so that they might take advantage of the BlackBerry Messenger service.

    Unlike the public faces of Twitter and Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger (also known as BBM) allows the owners of Research In Motion’s smartphones to message each other, much like a Windows Live/MSN user might use the Windows Live Messenger/MSN Messenger tool. Like computer-based IM services, BBM enables users to communicate with friends on an individual or group basis, and it is this service that was used to such devastating effect during the London riots of August 2011.

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    Wasn’t Closing BlackBerry Messenger Service an Option?

    Using BlackBerry Messenger affords users a relatively untraceable messaging service, one which requires RIM to do the hard work of tracing messages and dealing with the authorities; this is of course in stark contrast to something like Facebook, where a status update can be seen by many millions of people unless privacy options have been correctly configured.

    This lack of access to the BBM service made it a perfect medium for the protesters – but why were they able to continue using what is essentially a mobile phone instant messaging service even after it became known that BlackBerry Messenger was being used in this way?

    Through five nights in August 2011 around the UK, flash riots were quickly organized. Rioters knew en masse where to congregate, what stores to attack and how to get out of the area quickly. Given that the Indian government has previously put pressure on RIM concerning the use of BBM as a tool for terrorists, a very serious question has to be put to the British authorities as to why pressure wasn’t put on RIM to close the BlackBerry Messenger service.

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    Social Networking and the Peaceful Response

    Don’t go away from this thinking that BlackBerry Messenger is the future of mobile text-based communications, however. Social networking still has a massive part to play.

    These types of horrific displays of lawlessness and disorder routinely end up with a lot of finger pointing and very little done by the authorities to change things. Column inches are chewed up by pontificating commentators and people tend to forget about the events soon after.

    But not in London.

    While the rioters were using the underhand and sinister medium of BlackBerry Messenger, those affected – upstanding and responsible citizens – embraced Twitter to react to the massive job of cleaning up their communities.

    Just as BlackBerry Messenger sits on a mobile handset, so many millions of Twitter users access their accounts via a mobile phone. Thanks to the #cleanup hashtag hundreds of citizens turned out in the days after the riots, and supported by a police presence, worked hard to tidy their streets.

    The whole sorry saga has, uniquely, shown two very different sides of the consumerist culture. On the one hand we have those described as the “feral youth” – unemployed teenagers and twenty-somethings with too much time on their hands and access to a secretive messaging service with which they can arrange all manner of secretive and illegal activities.

    But we also have the flip side of the coin: intelligent, mobile, responsible grow-ups who may or may not have a job but are socially responsible enough to recognize disorder and do what they can to make a change by embracing technology in a positive and far more powerful and lasting way.

    The big question, however, is this: now that social networking has displayed this new level of maturity, can it become a real force for good, or is every Twitter and Facebook app on every mobile phone destined to revert to narcissism and trivia?

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