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.’

If proof was needed that social media empowers people and fuels revolutions then you should look at the unfolding situations in #Tunisia, #Egypt and countries in the middle-east. Facebook, Twitter and Egypt’s own Masrawy have connected people and empowered them to share their thoughts and opinions on how their states are governed.

The adoption of social networking in Arabic-speaking states has gone relatively unnoticed. Yet according to web research firm Alexa the top sites in Tunisia and Egypt are Facebook, Twitter and search company Google.

Anger and resentment at their respective Governments has found a nerve on people online, which has spread to citizens in respective countries.

Tunisia’s Secretary of State for Communication Sami Zaoui admitted at this week’s 2011 World Economic Forum (#WEF) about the impact that social networking had in the overthrowing of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Speaking to YouTube’s Uncultured Project Shawn Ahmed, Secretary Zaoui said, “Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have had great contribution to that [the revolution], in addition to, of course, all the demonstrators that have been in the field.” Secretary Zaoui also highlighted the fact that 40 per cent of the population being connected online to the success of the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’

But the demands from the population for work, food and democracy has spread through the region with Egyptian citizens taking to streets to demand an end of President Moubarak’s regime. Using the same sites as well as mobiles, demonstrators gathered to protest. Twitter, which is now blocked in Egypt saw a serve in use with people communicating and sharing messages using the #jan25 hashtag.

The outcome from the revolution in Tunisa unnerved the Egyptian regime, which took unprecedented action and blocked Internet services and mobile networks in the hope of quashing the uprisings. Demonstrators though quickly bypassed the authority’s firewalls and accessed the web through alternative means including the old dial-up system. Such a crackdown on communication brought condemnation from the international community.

Authorities in Egypt also started to censor and block news output, with Qatar’s Al-Jazeera having to broadcasting through alternative satellite frequencies after they were taken of air.

What social media has done is empower people. It has taught them how to overcome barriers and it’s enabled people to find a base where they can share their view and opinions. Opaque regimes have come under greater scrutiny with citizens wanting transparency and accountability. It’s enabled them to take action.

The BBC launched its much-anticipated ‘Democracy Live’ online service on Friday. Offering ‘live and video on demand video coverage of the UK’s national political institutions and the European Parliament’, the site brings politics to the public. Giving people insight into government and how our elected representatives and institutions work.

It was two years ago when the corporation’s Director General Mark Thompson gave a speech at Westminster on trust, politics and broadcasting where he outlined his view on how the BBC could help make politics more relevant to every citizen in this country.

At the time Thomson said, “We want to take our coverage of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, as well as local councils up and down the land and turn them into the most engaging, the most creative multimedia portal for democracy in the world, using BBC Parliament and our other television, networks, radio, the web and mobile. Since then MPs and news outlets have come under more scrutiny than ever before.

In his speech Thompson added, “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them. Survival guides and in-depth analysis of current debates and current legislation. Easy ways, for anyone who wants to, to plug into and take part in the debate. And all of it available to every secondary school in the UK as part of a strengthened commitment by BBC Learning to supporting citizenship and modern media literacy.”

I understand that the BBC has invested between £1-£1.5 million on Democracy Live, with the most significant cost being the 11 members of staff focused on the site.

Up and until the launch accessing such information and real-time feeds were available through either the Parliament site or through paid-for services such as those offered by companies such as DeHavilland.

What will make Democracy Live work is the use of speech-to-text recognition software offered by Blinkx. It is understood that Blinkx will the use both the phonetic and text transcripts to create transcripts and meta-tags that can be added to each video.  Blinkx also has a speech to text success rate of over 80 per cent, which is expected to increase as the site and video services beds in.

I also gather that the beta’s of the site that were presented to politicians during conference season were well received.

So, politics through the BBC, scrutiny of politicians and their decision-making though the BBC.

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The Government recently unveiled an advertising and communications campaign to promote the export opportunities that exist to British industry.  Some might consider the timing to be odd given that the nation is in the middle of the worst recession in living memory.  But a recent UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) conference in London at the beginning of the month proved otherwise.

At UKTI’s ‘Digital Business: India and China’ two day conference which I worked on (Reuters TV news above) small and medium sized technology and communications companies came together to share knowledge on the opportunities that lay in two countries that are bucking the downward global economic trend.

Companies from Britain’s digital, technology, mobile and gaming sectors agreed that while growth in the UK was hard, business opportunities in these two countries gave them hope for the future.

During the second day, which was devoted to China, representatives from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology gave an insight into the help that was available to UK companies thinking of investing in China, a country that is looking to move its economy towards value-adding products and services.

Welcoming The World To Britain
Welcoming The World To Britain

We’ve seen UKTI’s ‘Take It To The World’ campaign message on billboards at stations up and down the country.  And companies like are an example of how Britain can take gaming to the world.

But what has this got to do with PR and communications?  Well, it was wisely pointed out at the conference that China was not just looking to bring expertise to its home country.  Businesses in China are looking to enter the British and European marketplace, thus increasing the need for services such as PR, advertising and the like for them.

And let’s be honest, Britain has usually been concerned about China and it’s new financial muscle.  But with the UK PR industry suffering in the current recession the opportunities that might exist from Chinese companies wishing to expand into Europe might help.

Some of the big agencies, such as Burson-Marsteller already serve and support Chinese companies, such as  online business-to-business trading company, which last week announced a 39 per cent increase in revenue to over £300 million.

Agencies are getting ready for business from merging markets.  Maybe Brazil will be next.  Not a bad place for a business trip me thinks!

The Government yesterday released its interim Digital Britain report.  No surprises on the content of the Green Paper– broadband for all, improving how television content is distributed online and cracking down on illegal file sharing.

The disappointing aspect about the interim report is that for a fast changing industry its recommendations are already outdated, so working to get every household on a minimum 2Mbs line by 2012 will be like having a 56Kbs dial-up account today.

The report ignores the fact that bandwidth is already running out in Britain, especially as the BBC’s iPlayer continues to prove that people want to watch television (for live or recorded content) online.  Other broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 are readying themselves for the launch of their own content online, a partnership that also includes the BBC.

Recent figures, which I put in my last post on Digital Britain, confirm that shoppers are shunning the high-street for the improved prices that the net offers.

Lord Carter may say that while 2Mbs is the minimum speed that he wants everybody to have, speeds of up to 100Mbs will be available.  Good point, but high speeds will be there at a cost, a substantial cost, which will put consumers and businesses off from these packages.  Not just that, but he leaves the option open for an indirect tax on net users to counter online copyright piracy.

The Government said that it wanted to spend its way out of the current recession by investing in public sector development – new schools, hospitals, etc.  What it should have done through this interim report is commit itself to upgrading Britain’s bandwidth.  Doing this would send a clear signal to business that the internet can be used as a further channel through which it can do business.  It would also enhance the creativity that makes Britain a leader worldwide in the media, communications and creative industries.

I ask the question, now that we know where the Government wants Britain to be in 2012, where will Asia Pacific and the rest of Europe be?

This report wants a lot, but makes no recommendation on how these ‘wants’ should be met.  It offers no strategy and no solution.  It is a typical politcal report with no direction or ambition.  Exactly what you would expect.