Metropolitan Police Commander Stephen Watson commenting on “police intelligence” about the riot in Tottenham said on Sunday that Scotland Yard had been busy monitoring social networking sites. Watson observed that there had been “a lot of activity” on sites like Facebook and Twitter, with much misleading information about the possibility of further public disturbances in the area tonight.
In recent violent disorders in the UK such as the student fees protests in London, reports have focused on the role that social media have played in the planning of demonstrations and coordination of protesters. By contrast in this riot it appears the social network of choice is one provided by none other than BlackBerry.
Blackberry’s have been produced by Research In Motion (RIM) since 1999. They were originally associated with busy office executives who needed to access their emails on the move, but in recent years they have become increasingly popular within youth and urban cultures. I have to admit that I found this puzzling. It took my far cooler 17 year- old nephew to explain that the main reason for their popularity is due to BBM – BlackBerry Messenger.
BBM as it is known, is an instant messenger system that has become popular for three main reasons: it’s fast (naturally), it’s virtually free, and unlike Twitter or Facebook, it’s private.
Blackberry recognised the appeal of their products to the urban market and has had a long association with multi-millionaire rapper Jay-z in the States. In the UK, they recently hosted a ‘secret gig’ in Shoreditch Town Hall featuring Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32 and Devlin.
So what has all this got to do with the riots in Tottenham?
Well, it appears that BBM messages have been circulating since Thursday’s shooting of Mark Duggan by the police. These have fuelled the anger of the youths that have taken to the streets. BBM was also the channel used to spread the word that the riot had started, and from what I can tell on Twitter, it appears to be the means by which communications continue to be shared.
The key point here is that although these messages are spreading virally, by being shared via BBM they have been less visible to the outside world, making them harder to track.
I am not a security intelligence expert so I don’t know the extent to which the police are able to monitor the BBM network, but Canadian police officers have previously complained that criminals prefer using Blackberry Messenger because it is harder to wiretap.
As we have seen throughout the world this year, when angry young people utilise social networks to communicate and coordinate publically or privately, the results can be explosive.
It’s worth noting that the Daily Mail appears to have found a way to pin the blame for the riot in Tottenham on Twitter. This is because ‘a picture of a burning police car was re-tweeted more than 100 times’. However, as pointed out here, the logic doesn’t quite stack up, as the Mail (and every other news channel) was also responsible for sharing these images with far larger audiences.
Still, it’s perhaps not surprising that journalists defaulted to blaming the usual suspects.
*Jonathan Akwue is a Strategy Director at Jam & Transform and writes at Urban Mashup.wordpress.com.