When reports began to emerge on Saturday night of trouble in the Tottenham area of north London it was via Twitter and Facebook that many people first heard about the riots. But it was also suggested that those involved in the rioters were using the social networks to organise themselves.
The following morning both The Telegraph and Channel 4 reported on the fact that it was the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service that was predominately being used to organise the rioting and looting of shops in the Tottenham area. BBM is an instant messenger-style platform that enables BlackBerry users to send messages to each other or to groups of people in real-time.
As the riots spread to Enfield on Sunday evening and then across the rest of London and England on Monday more and more news organisations repeated the idea that it was social media fuelling the riots, either by those involved organising themselves or members of the public fanning the flames with wild speculation and second-hand reports.
The Media Blog has a good take on the Daily Mail’s initial reaction to the news when it called it a "Twitter riot". In fact, BBM is a closed system; it cannot be viewed by anyone not invited to the network, making it a much more private way to communicate than Twitter or Facebook and more likely to be the primary communication method for rioters.
BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) was quickly on the case, revealing that it has, "engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can." RIM’s managing director, global sales and regional marketing, Patrick Spence, added: "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," he added.
This could involve the use of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), controversial law that can force organisations to hand over data to the police, "in the interests of national security, for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder."
As we went to press there was speculation that RIM would shut down BBM to stop rioters communicating that way, but the Canadian firm has not commented on that just yet.
This morning we saw the beginnings of a fight back, as people and organisations began to harness social networks for good. A Twitter account and hashtag of RiotCleanUp were created to bring people together to tidy up parts of London that had been damaged by Monday night’s rioting. By early afternoon the account had gathered nearly 70,000 followers.
Celebrities such as Father Ted and The IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan and broadcaster Stephen Fry tweeted about the effort to raise awareness of it. Twitter’s official UK account did the same.
The Met Police has started to upload photographs of suspected looters to its Flickr page, with plenty of people on Twitter retweeting links to it, helping the police to apprehend the rioters and looters.
The journalist resource site Journalism.co.uk has an excellent rundown of other ways people are taking advantage of Web 2.0 tools and social networks to gather information and track the riots.
So what does all this tell us? "Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality and we need to adapt and learn from what we are experiencing," is how Senior Metropolitan Police Commander Steve Kavanagh, put it.
Indeed. The recent disturbances in London and other parts of England have shown both sides of the social network coin, the good and the bad, the helpful and the unhelpful.
Twitter and such like are powerful tools for spreading information but they are equally guilty of spreading misinformation. The riots are clearly not the fault of Twitter or BlackBerry – and it’s plainly absurd to suggest otherwise – but they did play a part in helping those involved to get organised. Now appears that they are playing a part in galvanising local residents into action.