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Saturday the 6 August 2011 and the streets of Tottenham are set ablaze by rioting.

As many people will recall, it isn’t the first time this has happened. On 6 October 1985 a notorious riot occurred on the Broadwater Farm Estate that led to the murder of PC Keith Blakelock.

On both occasions the disturbances were triggered by deaths caused by police. In the first instance it was that of Cynthia Jarrett, an African Caribbean woman who died during a police search of her home. This latest incident was sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year old man killed during an alleged gunfight with police on Thursday.

As I write this in the early hours of Sunday morning, the disturbance is ongoing and it is not yet clear how serious an incident this will become.

In recent public disturbances such as the Student protests, commentary has focused on the role that social networks such as Twitter and Facebook 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 recognized the appeal of their products to the urban market and has had a long association with 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 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 utilize social networks to communicate and coordinate publically or privately, the results can be explosive.

Photo Credits: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images via Flickr

UPDATE: It appears that the Daily Mail has found a way to pin the blame for yesterday’s 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 prehaps not surprising that journalists defaulted to blaming the usual suspects.

62 thoughts on “The unlikely social network fuelling the Tottenham riots

  1. HI there. This is quite insightful. The high function but low cost of BB’s compared with iPhones, their popularity with role models likes footballers and the existence of BBIM has created something of a shadow social network. Work I’ve done with young people through my professional activity has shown BBIM to be consistently more popular than Twitter.

    Just to add, it’s also really hard to see into Facebook. I suspect a huge number of Facebook status messages related to this event last night but as there is no way to read them, the press has taken the lazy option and called it a ‘Twitter riot’.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I like your use of the phrase ‘shadow social network’ as this is the point that I was trying to make about BBM not getting the same attention as Twitter, but in many ways being a more powerful medium for young people.

    I saw several Facebook status updates and pictures last night that referred to the events taking place in Tottenham, but a key distinction between the two platforms is that mum’s, dad’s, aunts and uncles are likely to be found on Facebook, but they’re unlikely to be on the BBM network, giving young people more freedom to communicate.

  3. “police officers have previously complained that criminals prefer using Blackberry Messenger because it is harder to wiretap.”

    Implying that a desire for privacy makes you a criminal.

  4. This post is really thought provoking and brings up memories of an issue about Dubai’s planned ban on Blackberry http://on.mash.to/9QWGVP due to “security concerns”.

    There is a reason that President Obama and the UN use Blackberry, as well by the looks of it the adolescents and the criminal masterminds – it is easy to use, highly encrypted and quick. It doesn’t take a DC Comic writer to be able to figure that it can be used both for good and evil.

    When I gave up my Blackberry for an iPhone the BBM was the one thing that made me think twice about the switch (in the end it was not a strong enough reason to stay).

    As for Twitter, the police should really be monitoring the firehose and have procedures for responses as soon as something is picked up. I would guess that by the time it hits Twitter though, the incident will be in full flight and they should already be responding to the issue.

  5. Dan is right! But not just police tapping (illegally most of the time). Whole CCTV culture that we are now stuck with was forced on people using the logic that if you are not comfortable with it, than you MUST have something to hide.
    Interestingly, when police killed Ian Tomlinson, the CCTV footage went missing!

    • I have nothing against the sentiment of what Dan said, and I agree that there is a presumption at times that if you want privacy you have something to hide, but that quote and the article it refers to have nothing to do with the conclusion he has drawn from it.

      The Canadian police were complaining that organised crime is using the extra level of security BBM provides and, crucially, their own encryption to make it very difficult to keep tabs. This is very different to what is going on in London at the moment and thus the correlation doesn’t really exist.

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  7. Excellent insight Jon. Some countries in the Middle East were thinking about, or have banned BBM due to it’s secure nature. Here’s a BBC article on it from last year:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-10830485

    Interestingly, only last month Dubai issued a BBM pin to message people:

    http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/dubai-police-issues-special-blackberry-pin-2011-07-13-1.407412

    The Met need to get up to speed on this. They were certainly caught flat-footed.

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  23. Interesting article – but there’s a difference between a medium being used for co-ordination and it ‘fueling’ riots. This trouble has been caused and exacerbated by a combination of factors – focus on the technology used to organise it will lead to more surveillance and less actual attention to addressing underlying issues.

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  37. Given the blame pointed at social networking for the recent round of riots, it’s amazing that the 1980s rioters managed to throw a single petrol bomb without the internet for instructions and social apps to organise their street mobs. Same with the French Revolution, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the fall of the Soviet Union. How did they get off the ground without networked communications tools?
    Social movements do not need Twitter, Facebook or BlackBerry messaging to succeed — they need any method of communication (like talking to the bloke next to you) and a sense of injustice (or futility or boredom) to motivate action.

    Social movements do not need Twitter, Facebook or BlackBerry messaging to succeed

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