The whole of the UK was rocked by the London riots a few months back. There has been a lot of chatter about the role of social media and in particular the instant messaging service offered by Blackberry. So, how much of a role did social media play?
Although the initial vigil for Mark Duggan was organised on Facebook, this seems to be about the limit of involvement from this particular social network. Twitter on the other hand was home to various tweets indicating targets for the rapidly escalating violence. The police ended up scouring twitter for further tweets inciting violence over the period. It is the messenger service from Blackberry however that seems to be the focal point for the role of social media in the rioting.
The Blackberry is the preferred smartphone for 37% of teenagers in Britain according to an Ofcom study carried out at the time. Blackberry Messenger (BBM) is the instant messaging service available on this phone. This service is completely free and it allows users to send messages to their wide network of contacts in one easy step. This makes it a popular alternative to regular phones and the use of text messages. The Blackberry network is also private so any message sent is virtually untraceable unlike facebook and twitter.
Reports of the rioting state that the BBM service on Blackberry phones was the primary means of communication amongst those involved in the riots. Several messages stating meeting points, targets and other information were sent through the network. Although some of the messages have been shown to the police, they cannot trace who actually sent them. Even the manufacturer of the phones cannot necessarily unscramble the encryptions. The company behind Blackberry, Research in Motion have stated they would assist in police enquiries. This information did not go down well with certain parties however and the the Inside Blackberry blog was also hacked as a warning!
Social media does increase the speed and ease of communication, but its role in the riots has perhaps been over-played slightly. Riots are not something new and simple word of mouth can be just as effective when a situation like this occurs. Regular media too almost certainly plays a role in spreading information. It should also be remembered that it was through social media that teams of people were able to organise themselves into clean up groups during the days following the night time disorders. Social media has changed the way we communicate with one another, but it is important not to place too much importance on the role of social media, in particular the Blackberry messaging service in causing or even escalating these riots.
Obviously this does throw some interesting thoughts onto the most recent of Blackberry’s headlines, the fact that their service was down to UK users. Was this just a glitch, or did Blackberry know about another upcoming riot and tried to avoid the blame?