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