10th Aug 2011

London/UK Riots and Social Media

Much has been made of the rioters’ use of social networks and BlackBerrys during the recent troubles in London, Manchester and elsewhere. Small pockets of mostly teenage thugs communicate with each other whilst riding BMXs or skateboards around city streets. Use of the BlackBerry Messenger service is particularly widespread among young people, is difficult for police intelligence to detect and decrypt, and MPs have called for the service to be suspended.

What we have here, unfortunately, is the whole sorry business of social media laid to bare. Social networks can be used for positive, community-enhancing purposes, of course, and no shortage of examples of this are evident in the mass clean-up operations that followed the riots.

But sadly, placed in the hands of the mob, the power of social media has been abused. Instead of progressiveness and innovation, social media, in this case, enhances criminal opportunism and social irresponsibility.

What will this mean for the future of social networks? In simple terms, the people with the real power – politicians, police, lawyers – will ensure that advances in communications technologies in no way threaten the capacity for state surveillance and social control. Because despite what sensational media reports might suggest about twitter-led terror and BlackBerry battles, the truth is that the people in power are always one step ahead of the rest (including the so-called innovators).

POSTSCRIPT: An historical perspective on the UK riots is often missing from news reports, or may get only a brief mention. For anyone who lived through the 1980s, perhaps the sense of fear is tempered by the knowledge that very few people actually died during those troubled times. Criminal damage and casualities, yes – major fatalities, no. Interestingly, 2011 has much in common with the summer of 1981 – austerity measures, rising inflation, rising unemployment, royal weddings, and now these riots. But those idiotic commentators who compare the recent scenes in London to the Northern Irish troubles of yesteryear should go back and study their history books.

Media panic, both of the tabloid and public-broadcast variety, has not helped the situation. In 1981 there were only 3 television channels in Britain; 30 years on, dedicated rolling news channels provide continuous coverage of the unfolding saga. That old-fashioned phenomenon known as the NEWS FLASH is now hopelessly redundant. Perhaps the suggestion that young thugs are playing copycat, attacking their neighbourhoods in direct response to what they witness on the telly, is too far-fetched. But surely it’s true to say that blanket footage of blazing buildings and shops being looted stirs up a collective spurt of adrenalin in some sections of society. As one thug said to a BBC radio reporter: Everyone else is doing it, aren’t they? A rhetorical question if ever there was one.

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