Social media sites Facebook and twitter were blamed today by Government and Metropolitan Police spokespeople for fanning the UK #Londonriots and looting over the weekend. Fingers were pointed at these social networking sites for the fact that they enable people to send out calls for people to gather together.
The disturbances happened after the fatal shooting of Tottenham father of four Mark Duggan who was allegedly killed in a minicab on Thursday by police firearm officers.
Blaming these sites is just placing a distraction for the real reasons for the unlawful behaviour that took place, highlighting a lack of understanding or will to understand of how people use social media today.
In fact, as Partner at Engine group Jonathan Akwue points out in his blog, it wasn’t Facebook or Twitter that fuelled the riots, but most probably BBM – BlackBerry Messenger. BlackBerry is the phone of choice amongst a young demographic that took part in the riots, primarily because of BBM is virtually free (You just need a BlackBerry data plan) and unlike Facebook and Twitter, which are both open, it’s truly private.
BBM messages are encrypted and run through Research In Motion’s Canadian servers, and issue that has created many problems for the firm in India and the UAE, where they were threatened with being banned unless their encrypted communications were ‘opened-up’.
Emirates247 reported on 26th July that Abu Dhabi Police have warned that ‘spreading malicious rumours and fake news through BlackBerry messenger (BBM) is punishable by law and offenders could by jailed up to three years.’ The question now is if the UK Government is with it’s tarring of social networking and the recent extension of the #phonehacking judicial review going to push for something similar given that BBM is in all sense a private forum that is difficult to listen in on.
Blaming social networks is just a distraction, facilitating a reason for a possible change in policy that could be rushed through without understanding how these communication channels work. But think about it, why would anybody wanting to do a crime share it on an open network? Why not use a private channel? Why can’t lawmakers understand this simple fact?
During the weekend riots Twitter was the channel used to report what was unfolding in Tottenham, Edmonton and Brixton. A channel that captured in real-time what was organised on the locked-down BBM network. If you wanted a real-time update you went to Twitter and used relevant search terms.
As Omar said in The Wire, “the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.” And at the moment the authorities are getting played. Blaming social media confirms the distance that exists between them and the reasons that trigger the unrests.
*** UPDATE ***
BlackBerry UK have released the following statement in response to the use of BBM, ‘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.’