No, it was not the Blackberry wot dunnit

The smart-phone riots? Technology is about as capable of causing riots as a car is of driving a man.

Hayley Watson

Topics Science & Tech

Reporters have been asking questions about the role that technology played in the riots that ripped first across London before spreading to other cities in England. Certainly, in the past, there is

Let’s start by considering whether or not technology caused the riots to escalate. For the BBC’s Iain Mackenzie, this isn’t a simple yes-or-no question. Mackenzie reports that Tottenham MP David Lammy argued that Twitter was to blame for the organisation of the riot. However, as Mackenzie points out, there is little evidence to support this claim. Elsewhere, a couple of journalists at the Mirror argue that the smart phone Blackberry is to blame. This view is supported by Chris Taylor at Mashable, who argues that the Blackberry is being used more than the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. Both the Guardian and the Telegraph concur: the Blackberry is the principal mode of communication.

The main reason, as Mackenzie argues, is that this form of communication can be considered ‘private’. In practice this means that individuals are able to use their own contact lists, which must be confirmed using a secret pin number, to communicate with one another. The Guardian even reports that a recent study by Ofcom suggests that the Blackberry is the smart phone of choice among young people (37 per cent). In the case of the riots, plentiful examples of how Blackberry’s messenger service is being used for communication are now emerging:

    ‘Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!’

    ‘Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!’

Blackberry has responded to the reports that their phones have been used by rioters on Twitter:

Yet while smart phones may be more ‘popular’ when coordinating action, social media sites are still being used as a form of communication. For instance, Facebook was being used to try to coordinate and publicise riots due to take place in other parts of the country, including in Manchester and Nottingham (note: this page has since been removed):

Elsewhere on Facebook, users have created a page dedicated to the London riots, which, as of Tuesday, had 3,612 ‘likes’:

Yet much of the ‘conversation’ taking place online may be just that – conversation. People are simply using their own systems of communication to respond to the events, to discuss the riots with others, and in some cases to make jokes and share information. For example, a popular hashtag on Twitter for discussing the riots is #londonriots. Many people on Twitter appear to be using it to share relevant, riot-related web links with other interested people. Examples of tweets include:

By investigating the use of technology during the riots we are also able to see evidence of ‘good’ uses of technology and not simply technology used for the organisation and celebration of destruction. For example, a website has been set up to coordinate members of the public to help clean up the mess caused by the riots. The website includes times, locations and even goes so far as to include videos of public participation. Not only has technology enabled the creation of this website, but, as widely reported by the Guardian, the BBC, and right-wing political blogger Guido Fawkes, individuals are using social-networking sites including Twitter and Facebook to help promote news of the public-led clean-up operation. For instance, the following picture was uploaded and shared through Twitter:

Elsewhere, a similar page set up on Facebook has attracted over 9,000 ‘likes’:

Such uses of technology encourage a climate of solidarity and resilience that is led by members of the public rather than by the authorities. Social-networking websites function as a publicity board to enable those who wish to participate to learn of planned events and get involved.

Social-networking websites are also functioning as a way of showing support for the Metropolitan Police. The following Facebook page ‘Supporting the Met Police against the London Rioters’ had, as of Wednesday, over 529,000 supporters:

A final consideration when thinking about the use of technology in the wake of the recent riots is the use of the social-networking website Flickr by the Metropolitan Police. The site is being used by the police to present CCTV images of those alleged to have been involved in the riots, with the public called upon to assist in the identification of the suspects.

What, then, can we conclude about the use of technology during the riots? It appears that there is evidence that technology has been used to both encourage the riots and respond to the riots. Technology can be seen as both a social ‘harm’ and a social ‘good’. However, it is paramount that commentators stop taking a technologically determinist approach to understanding the causes behind the riots. As stated by CNET blogger, Chris Matyszczyk, it is necessary to remember that technology alone is incapable of ‘causing’ a riot. Emphasis should not be placed on the ‘machine’ but on the ‘individual behind it’. Technology has to be used; it is not by itself capable of causing mayhem and destruction. We do not yet live in the era of I-Robot.

Technology is not doing anything. Individuals choose to involve themselves in the riots for their own personal reasons. So instead of getting caught up in emphasising the dangers of advancing technology, we should take steps not just to assess the impact of technology, but how it can be used for better. And at a time when people felt so powerless, we certainly saw how it could be used by individuals to cooperate and empower themselves.

Hayley Watson is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Kent.

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Topics Science & Tech


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