How much are Twitter and BlackBerry to blame for British riots?
British officials have criticized social media for its role in organizing and fanning the riots throughout England. But experts suggest that much of the criticism is misplaced.
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Other posts, however, would appear to cross a clear line. One typical BlackBerry message broadcast on Sunday, reported by The Guardian newspaper, calls on "everyone from all sides of London" to convene in certain areas and then to vandalize shops on Oxford street.Skip to next paragraph
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This has ramped up pressure on social media providers to cough up the keys to the kingdom – the encryption keys that will let police or intelligence authorities listen in on private conversations.
But some say that would be missing the point.
"There’s certainly some evidence of the use of mobile communications to organize what happened, but to understand this you have to go beyond the assumption that this was a spontaneous public uprising," writes Andy Williamson, director of digital democracy at the Hansard Society in London, who has studied the use of social media tools in the Arab Spring.
"You can’t blame social media for what happened nor can you really say it changed the nature of the riots," he notes in an e-mail interview. "It might have spread the message but the evidence points to it being a tool.... These kids use social media instinctively in their lives, of course they’re going to use it here. If social media was to blame, 24-hour TV was more so."
Others say forcing providers to divulge encryption keys would be a knee-jerk reaction.
“The UK certainly has ample laws that would allow police to subpoena people's communications without going to BBM and having them open up their entire network," says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco
The BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is particularly under fire because it is encrypted and free, Ms. York says. Many people can communicate at the same time, but it doesn't leave a public trail the way Twitter and Facebook do.
Because of the trail left on most social-media sites, flash robs are a "sexy story" but not one likely to become a broad trend, says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media in Cambridge, Mass. Also, over the long run there are other, more secure ways for criminals to organize themselves than using BBM, he says.
"I predict in the wake of London's riots that a whole lot of people will get arrested," he says. "This is a city filled with [surveillance] cameras. Police will examine the footage and correlate it with social media.”
Moreover, social media participation in England has not been all bad. It has also been an important part of the cleanup efforts.
"Basically you had people using tools like Facebook or Twitter to reach out and kind of say, ‘Hey, this is our community, let's get together to put a stop to this,’ " writes Patrick Underwood, a researcher of online communities at the University of Washington, in an e-mail interview. "Again, we've seen such a response in riots before, but the new technologies add some new wrinkles."