Social networking and the English riots: don’t shoot the (Blackberry) messenger

August 12th, 2011 by

Looting, arson, armored police and outraged citizens: London is at boiling point, with other English cities feeling the heat too. Here in law-abiding Helsinki, the closest we get to this type of lawlessness is an unauthorized barbecue in the park. By comparison, the UK capital is descending into Arab-Spring-like chaos. Except, of course, that Londoners are not fighting an oppressive dictator (the current mayor is most famous for his “revolutionary” bicycle scheme).

With no obvious cause for the riots, the British press has been (predictably) quick to blame social networks. One newspaper reported a “Twitter frenzy” by rioters encouraging an “orgy of destruction”. Other commentators criticize the role of Blackberry messenger, referring to the popularity of this “secret” messaging service among young people. (It’s also popular with lawyers and bankers – conspiracy theories anybody?)

The mainstream media has launched non-stop riot coverage. The Guardian is “crowdsourcing” (the term now seems to be used for any activity involving a phone and two or more people) eye-witness reports, while liveblogs bombard viewers with footage. Never mind the hypocrisy that newspapers are gleefully filling their (virtual) pages with riot images while simultaneously accusing tweeters of fanning the violence by retweeting photos.

So, is this social networking’s darkest hour? There’s one piece of good news for crowdsourcing fans. Social network users have started organizing voluntary clean-up operations all over London. On Tuesday, @riotcleanup and @prayforlondon were top Twitter trends. Proof that social media can sometimes bring out the best, as well as the worst in people.


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