Social media is becoming intrinsic to everyday life. We all know the oft-quoted statistic that if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. However, as the British Government found out at the beginning of August 2011, that proliferation of easy online communication can be a threat as well as an opportunity.
Encrypted networks such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM) were widely used by gangs of youths across British cities including London, Manchester, and Birmingham to organise rioting. It confounded the British police for 48 hours until a cohesive response was rallied. It wasn’t Twitter that was the main cause of the problems (though Twitter rumour eventually came to cause more problems than the actual physical rioting for police forces outside the major cities), but BBM. And it caught everyone by surprise. As a result, the British government found itself in an uncomfortable place, previously occupied by such countries as Egypt, seriously considering banning such social networks from transmitting content in times of civil unrest.
But how did such a serious consideration become necessary? What was it that lit the touchpaper and led to a Western government contemplating restriction of freedom of speech?
Social media can and, many argue, is changing the world. But in the midst of this positivity, there are big issues for the authorities. As we all know, Twitter and other social networks amplify. This is their magic. But it can also become a massive nightmare – and that’s exactly what happened.
‘I Predict a Riot’
‘I predict a riot.’ It took seven years for British rock band The Kaiser Chiefs’ unintentional prediction to come true. That the rioting happened was not so much of a surprise. England has been here before and student protests as a result of amendments to their funding attested to the mood of a nation. UK Uncut’s attempt at artistic and humorous protest culminating in an attempt at protest during U2’s set at Glastonbury Festival for tax evasion may have deflated almost instantly, but their occupation of the very English institution of Fortnum & Mason, purveyors of the finest of English goods, challenged – albeit peacefully – a previously unassailable institution. Was this assault grounding for what came after?
The cause aside, the facts speak for themselves. On August 4, Mark Duggan, resident of Tottenham and a father of four, was shot dead during an attempt by the metropolitan police to arrest him. A public demonstration at the police’s conduct was arranged on the Saturday but by 9pm it had become very clear that the peaceful demonstration was descending into something more violent and destructive. Pictures of Tottenham emerging on the morning of Sunday, August 7 looked more like a war zone than a London borough. Police confirmed there were still pockets of unrest on that morning but the events which unfurled subsequently took everyone by surprise.
The rioting spread as fast as the flames, across London and eventually to England’s second and third largest cities, Birmingham and Manchester.
Blackberries or Riotberries?
So where does social media come into this?
Suspicions were raised when the rioting spread. Where initial rioting had been focused around Mark Duggan’s hometown, by the next day it had spread to many areas of London. And there seemed to be a remarkable sense of organisation behind the looting with large groups of people arriving synchronised to the nearest 5 minutes in front of a certain stores, clearing them out, and then moving on to the next one – again with remarkable synchronicity. By Sunday evening suspicions were being confirmed as copy and pastes of BBM messages started to appear in Tumblr’s and on Facebook.
But the people pointing out that social networks were being used were not journalists or the authorities; it was normal people on the ground pointing out that no one would be stupid enough to announce their looting intentions on an open network.
But if the conversation could be private? That’s something else. As time passed, Blackberry Messenger revealed itself as a key organisational tool. Blackberry Messenger, or BBM, is a closed instant messaging network. You have to be invited to a conversation in order to see the discussions, unlike Twitter where most conversations are public. It appears that the authorities struggled to keep up with the pace of events as a network invisible to them evolved incredibly quickly. An additional level of complexity is added in that all messages transmitted are encrypted, making interception for Authorities even more challenging.
As journalists probed further, evidence emerged in the form of messages being sent encouraging people to meet at certain places at certain times to instigate rioting and looting. The proof of this came as those meetings occurred and looting followed.
If the problems were only restricted to BBM, arrests for inciting civil unrest on social media may not have ever happened. However, as events unfurled and spread across the country, it became clear that some people were stupid enough to announce their intentions of breaking the law across a social network: Facebook.
But perhaps most fascinating of all was the role Twitter did – or perhaps rather did not – play in the riots. Twitter instead proved a catalyst for those not directly involved, counteracting the violence by facilitating vigilante clean-up crews and fanning the flickers of hope back into existence.
Careless Talk Costs Lives
As Brits have long known, “Careless talks cost lives.” This phrase was used by the Ministry of Defence during World War II to exhort the public never to speak to strangers, in defence against German spies. In August 2011 the same message may as well have been broadcast across the land as police forces never before seen on Twitter suddenly created accounts and started tweeting.
The unfortunate reason for this sudden flurry of activity? Isolated incidents of idiots claiming rioting was happening in their local town centre when it wasn’t. And as we all know, rumours on Twitter can go from “there might be” to “there actually is” in the space of five minutes as people modify tweets before retweeting them, without thinking of the consequences.
As a result, if Twitter were to be believed, the riots were spreading all across the country. In actual fact they were not. Whether the police were simply using another medium to fulfil their duty to maintain order or whether they were involved in a mass waste of time exercise is still under fierce debate.
In the spring of 2011, social media was used by Arab countries to remove oppressors and protest about desired political change.
But to this point in our tale, the English had managed to use social networks to steal expensive televisions, set fire to massive buildings built in the early 20th century, and spread untrue rumours. That was not something to be proud of. Our nation until recently had taken Twitter far more to its heart than our American neighbours, and was praised by Tim Berners-Lee as being ahead of the U.S. in its drive to make government data more open.
But hidden among the noise of exploding petrol bombs and breaking glass, there was hope.
Wombles are a very English thing and somewhat hard to explain, but as fictional children’s TV characters from the 1970’s go, they persist in the English consciousness. Wombles were cute, lived on Wimbledon Common in London, and collected bits of rubbish which they recycled in unusual and imaginative ways. The word “Wombling” has struck ever since to describe the actions of eco-warriors and other environmentally conscious people.
And so it was in the aftermath of the riots. The #riotcleanup and #riotwomble hashtags started appearing on Twitter. Four hundred people descended on Clapham Junction and other areas, ready to clean up the mess and organizing themselves into teams. There were some giggles but there was also some relief that typing furiously could finally result in effecting positive change. As time passed and Greater Manchester Police became involved due to the riots happening on their patch, the use of social media evolved even further. Flickr was used to identify rioters caught on CCTV along with the more traditional billboards.
Social media use was not all plain sailing however. Greater Manchester Police tweets detailing the sentences being handed out in court resulted in accusations of gloating, which the force immediately apologised for; the tweets were retracted. This was one of the more easily resolved issues raised by the riots when it came to social media use in England.
Difficult Questions and Difficult Discussions
As the riots died down, the true scale of the involvement of social networks and digital technology became obvious.
eBay confirmed they would remove any listings linked to criminal activity. Research in Motion, owners of Blackberry who had pledged to assist the Police with their enquiries, were hacked and told in no uncertain terms that they should not support the authorities. Amazon experienced a sudden noticeable surge in sales of batons and baseball bats and no one needed to ask what they were being used for. A 12–year-old provoked thought and comment by pointing out on a youth website that the rioters had looted every single shop in Clapham apart from bookseller Waterstones. Parliament was recalled early from their vacations and on August 11th the Prime Minister stated he was “working with police, the intelligence services, and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality.”
Subsequently, representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and RIM met with the Home Secretary. It was decided that Ministers would not seek additional powers to shut down social media websites. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, summed this up succinctly by saying, “The loss of civil liberties was not going to be compensated for by a gain in security.” However, Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, countered that a complete ban is not off the agenda by the Home Office.
Civil Liberties and Freedom of Speech in the Digital Age
So where does this leave England’s access to social networks? What have we learned? There are many lessons.
Open networks are far easier to monitor than closed ones. The authorities seemed to have been caught unawares initially because organisation occurred on closed encrypted networks which they could not access. The obvious course of action for the authorities would be to request access to this encrypted data which is not protected by the Data Protection Act, but the speed with which RIM would need to communicate this content to the authorities would mean a delay in reaction to civil unrest organised on the fly.
Even if RIM closed BBM within the UK, how would they prevent one-to-many SMS traffic from replacing it? Would this simply magnify the problem by ensuring it became necessary to monitor thousands of SMS messages instead of one BBM message replicated massively across networks? And if you shut down BBM, would it just result in someone coding a replacement closed system based on BBM, perhaps accessed through a Blackberry app and utilising the same PIN swapping system that BBM relied on? Public key encryption has been around for a long time, after all.
Diaspora is a relatively new social network system currently in Alpha testing. It purports to provide more control over privacy than Facebook, and indeed was coded entirely in response to users’ disenchantment with Facebook. The mere existence of Diaspora demonstrates that if people are not happy with a situation or system then they simply build something else which fixes the issues they are not happy with – in this case, content being posted in private but revealed to authorities.
Layered above this narrative is the question of free speech and infringement of civil liberties. People use social networks for hundreds of different reasons. Can we remove what is now a fundamental part of people’s lives, relied on by millions as a way of attaining support, contact, friendship or family communication, for the sake of a few thousand people intent on civil unrest? Is this a fair response? For how long would any ban be enforced? What of blog discussion threads, of Tumblr, of Flickr, all of which could be equally used to arrange civil unrest? Is the issue only the system which is encrypted, and all others must now be accepted and expected as part of English daily life? Is it fair to penalise only one social network? Can you only switch off a social network in one country? Because what then of Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland, none of whom experienced civil unrest but, one assumes, all of whom could have their social networking access revoked?
On a fundamental level, once you let the genie out of the bottle, it is very difficult to only stuff half of the genie back in. Once a way of communicating has become entrenched in over half a country population’s way of life, can you really remove it?
Recent events in England raise many questions which have difficult answers. But they are questions and discussions which cannot and should not be restricted to one country. Eventually these issues will need to be addressed globally as speech and the freedom to speak without inhibition is increasingly associated with fingers and the freedom to type with them.