London riots and the role of social media

09 August 2011

As I heard the helicopters hovering overhead I remember back to the last period of rioting in Brixton in 1985 and my last vivid images of Brixton High Street on fire and my heart sank. Firstly it sank for all those people in North London who had already lost their home and business and for their staff, trying to make a living in an economy where trading conditions are tough enough already.
Last night I was even more sickened by the sight of so many burning buildings on the TV.  I wandered down to Brixton to see the aftermath of the mindless violence on what was once Foot Locker's flagship store where the newest trainers had caught the attention of shoppers and saw this mother and child trying to make sense of the broken glass and gaping hole in the Footlocker window.  I then walked past an empty McDonalds where I saw one lonely worker on his mobile phone gazing out through the cracked glass.

Gazing out of an empty damaged McDonalds Source: K Bullock
Thank god for the rain
I watched the BBC news, and then realised that a deliberate news blackout to minimise the likelihood of attracting more criminals to a new riot area meant that the only way to really find the breaking news was to follow the latest Twitter feed. There was no doubt that following hashtag  #Brixton was the only way to see what was really going on in the area. As I read the posts, and the photos which built confidence in the truth of the posts, I was heartened by those that condemned the violence but also sickened by the comments inciting people to join in. If it had not rained really heavily in Brixton last night, I dread to think how much more serious the crimes may have been.

The power of the Blackberry message
Blackberry messaging was the key tool used on the one hand by Obama for his 2008 campaign and communications and yet on the other by gangs in the UK last night to organise the crime raids. It's  favoured by young people as they can use the system to send files such as music, media and attachments cheaply.
India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Algeria have all been very concerned by the potential that this messaging system offers to terrorists. The Blackberry service was also suspended in UAE in August 2010 as RIM would not use the service locally as required by the authorities. The data is outside the jurisdiction of these countries and according to Wikipedia, strong encryption prevents anyone reading the messages. It’s clear that Research in Motion Ltd (RIM) which runs the Blackberry platform, had to give India some assurances last August according to Bloomberg that it could be accessed to fight terrorism but there is no real update on what exactly happened. According to The Telegraph on Monday it’s unlikely our intelligence services at GCHQ can access these messages in the UK, unless they have a special warrant from the Home Office although RIM have now offered help to the government to track down criminals using their network to orchestrate violence. How we balance this need for intelligence with our heavily guarded freedom of speech and need for privacy and security of our messages is a delicate balancing act.
Image Source: Flickr CR Artist Lewis
PCMag in Feb 2011 claimed Blackberry had over 47million users worldwide with 16% global market share and the EMEA users were recently stated to be growing by 1million per month.
Our changing media landscape
It’s clear that the shape of our media is changing and those that are able to access social networks like Twitter and Facebook are becoming better informed than those who are not. The usage of social media networks shows how gangs can use them effectively to organise themselves to attack areas and outwit the police. The only way to deal with them is to ensure that the police are one step ahead. I don’t know how trained the UK police force are in using social media networks but my sense is that understanding how these channels are used is key to cracking down on crime.
Nick Clegg predicted the riots
I saw with interest a YouTube video dating back to before the last election showing Nick Clegg’s comments regarding the danger of too many cuts suggesting that the UK could suffer the same fate as Greece and its riots if the cutbacks are too severe. These cutbacks are not just affecting the poor they are affecting all members of society and everyone is having to take their fair share of pain.  We cannot use the cutbacks to excuse the recent spate of riots, violence and crime. The fact that 26 police were injured in Sunday night’s riots is a shocking testament to the level of unprovoked violence and the amateur video footage of the riots enabled us to witness the crimes of others in real time.
Social media transparency
Let’s not forget that social media can also bring transparency to the actions of authorities and brands. As Peter Bleksley commented on Radio 5live on Monday we live in a world of citizen journalism. Accessing the many amateur photos and videos that were taken of criminals taking stolen goods could help to bring prosecutions. It also means the police are constantly in the spotlight and that same citizen photo or video can also be used to bring prosecutions against the police in the case of the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009.
Someone on Twitter praised the efforts of a Sky news reporter still taking photos in what were extremely dangerous situations on the streets tonight.
Our thirst for breaking news
The demand for breaking news is so great that it brought down the webcams for Brixton High Street on Sunday night. If we look at other countries Twitter TV has already brought breaking news and commentary to the screens of the US public. How long before we will no longer be reliant on the national news networks? The nature of our media will have fundamentally changed forever as we rely more and more on citizen journalism and social networks.
Let’s remember what’s at stake
If we remember the immense pride that many UK people have taken in the Olympics and the euphoria that greeted that news that we had won the bid, all eyes are now on the capital. We can ill afford to let a bunch of criminals ruin the global image of what is a fantastic place to live and visit.
The tweets and video footage of last night’s riots were available worldwide in real time thanks to the smart phones that so many Londoners carry. We have to think carefully as to how these new social networks, which were not around in the riots of the mid 80s, can quickly damage the image of our city and that of other companies affected by the last two nights of criminal damage.
Let’s use social media to say “no” to London riots
Rainbow over Brixton Source: KBullock
On seeing the rainbow over the Ritzy in Brixton which remained calm whilst I was there till around 8.30pm last night,  I thought there was hope for the city. However after reading the tweets I can only hope that the army are brought in to restore law and order to the city of London and if we have to have a curfew, so be it. 
Let us know what you think and have your say.
How do you see that social media can help resolve the volatile situation in London?
Do you think the national news blackout on Sunday night was a good or a bad thing, given that the TV news last night has terrified so many?
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