Social Media’s Role in the London Riots


David Lammy, Member of Parliament for Tottenham appealed on Twitter and on BBC radio for BlackBerry maker Research in Motion to suspend BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

“This is one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force,” he tweeted. “BBM is different as it is encrypted and police can’t access it.”

Earlier today, I reported that digital advisor to London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, reportedly Tweeted it was “unbelievable” that BBM had not been shut down for its role as an anarchy organization tool. This prompted BlackBerry to Tweet that they will fully cooperate with police, leading to hackers making threats of greater violence if BlackBerry works with Scotland Yard. FULL STORY BELOW.


I am still heartbroken watching these violent riots unfolding across London and the metro areas right now and I hope with all my heart that all of my London pals continue to be safe and keep me apprised of what’s happening.

Why The Riots Began

There’s been some confusion as to why these kids are rioting. A brief review of the backstory: a 29 year old father of four named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police on August 4.

According to an account provided by the IPCC, Duggan was a passenger in a minicab when the cab was stopped Thursday evening by submachine gun-toting officers from Scotland Yard’s Operation Trident — a special operation “dealing with gun crime among black communities, in particular drug-related shootings.” What happened next is unclear due to conflicting reports by the IPCC and London-based media, which only have basic facts in common: multiple shots were fired, at least one bullet was lodged in a police radio worn by one of the officers and when it was over, Duggan was dead.

This was followed on August 6 with a peaceful vigil held in Duggan’s memory. Unfortunately, during the vigil, riot police were called in and a 16 year old girl allegedly threw a rock at one of the police. The police then beat her unconscious with their batons. (Note, this eye witness video is graphic and has mature language as witnesses yell to the cops that the person they are beating is just a little girl). In response to that action, the peaceful vigil turned very very ugly.

The Role of Social Media

Now, with the rioting expected to continue into the 4th night of mayhem, many opinions are surfacing as to why the destruction rages on. Some say it’s opportunists taking advantage of looting. I’m sure there is some truth in that. Others say it’s kids who’ve grown up on violent video games, living out their virtual fantasies. Okay, maybe a few of them. Most say it’s because of the global economy and people are angry and desperate. Certainly quite likely.

As the riots are now spreading to other cities outside of London, it’s becoming clear that people are using social media to organize their destruction and there is a kind of a “party-feeling” associated with these posts.

Look, for example at this Facebook group invite (right) asking who is planning to attend the next riot in Liverpool. One certainly could argue that the tone of this invite is one of a party versus one of true rebellion against tyranny.

BlackBerry Threatened By Rioters

Now, it seems that Blackberry, the preferred smart phone for teens in Britain is getting some attention as Scotland Yard reports that many of the rioters are using BBMs to plan their mayhem.

Mike Butcher, a technology journalist and digital advisor to London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, reportedly Tweeted it was “unbelievable” that BBM had not been shut down for its role as an anarchy organization tool.

“There is evidence that BBM is an encrypted, very secure, safe, fast, cheap, easy way for disaffected urban youths to spread messages for their next target,” Butcher said in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday.

“Mobile phones have become weaponised in their capability of spreading information about where to target next,” he said.

In response, BlackBerry issued this Tweet: from the @UK_BlackBerry account, “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

Apparently hackers then got into BlackBerry’s Blog and announced: “You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all.”

The hackers then threatened to pass on RIM’s employee information to rioters if the company assisted police.

It’s Not All Bad News

But, social media is also creating some good in this mess. These Twitterers are using the social network to organize clean ups through @RiotCleanUp, which has over 72,000 followers and has already organized dozens of clean up parties.

The movement also has a Facebook page and a static community page where Londoners can get the latest schedules and locations for clean up groups.

The police have also been using social media to identify looters and lawbreakers, including a Flickr account and Scotland Yard’s Twitter account.

Additional helpful hashtags include: #TakeBackLondon, #RiotCleanUp and #ReclaimLondon, all of which are designed to help people organize clean up efforts.

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