Socializing Riots

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A month ago the U.K. was rocked by the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, at that time the insatiable British appetite for dirt was blamed. Now we have witnessed one of the most horrific riots which usually is synonymous with football hooliganism. The culprit is again Media, this time a more modern form, Social Networks.

Before we delve into the role social media played in the riots, the reasons for this behavior need to be understood.


Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said it was not surprising politicians were struggling to formulate a response to the riots.

“What has happened significantly involves people breaking things and destroying them and stealing consumer goods, particularly trainers and plasma TV screens from shops,” he told AFP.

“This is not a political point even though politicians will have to understand why it happened and react to it. But this was not a political riot or demonstration of any kind.”

Social deprivation

The U.K. itself is divided in trying to understand the reasons and the events that lead up to the riots. According to the U.K. Prime Minister, the riots which have scarred England were motivated by pure criminality but opposition politicians and academics say they also point to social deprivation.

Cameron initially reacted to what he called “disgusting” scenes by talking tough, ordering a near-tripling of police on London’s streets and warning the rioters they would be tracked down and prosecuted.

The images of young, hooded men smashing their way into shops and making off with televisions, or trying on training shoes outside looted stores, showed that part of British society was “sick”, the Conservative prime minister said.

He has refused to accept however that the violence had anything to do with poverty or that the riots were motivated by political protest.

Me first

“I think what we’ve got to do is to avoid simplistic solutions,” said Labour leader Ed Miliband.

“I found myself thinking that this was individual criminal activity and there can be no excuse and justification for it — but I know we need to go beyond that,” he told BBC radio.

“Is it culture or is it poverty and lack of opportunity? It is probably both.”

Miliband linked the looting to the banking crisis and the scandal of phone hacking by a tabloid newspaper, which showed a lack of responsibility and a “me first” mentality, and called for all of society to “look into our souls”.


The trigger for the riots was the shooting of a man by police in the multi-ethnic north London suburb of Tottenham, although as the violence swept to other cities it appeared to be more copycat than in solidarity with any cause.

Professor Gus John from the University of London, who specialises in black issues, maintains however that the police tactics of “stop and search”, particularly of young black men, breed resentment towards the police.

“So many of those young people who you’ll have seen in the footage (of the riots) would have been people who have been regularly searched by the police, some of them resenting that massively,” he said.

“I think to a large extent, it’s an outpouring of pent-up anger against the police, but also total frustration with their situation as people who see no future for themselves.”

But David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, insisted: “The polarisation is not between black and white. It is between those who have a stake in society and those who do not.”


Its sometimes easy to make it black or white and place it in nice boxes with labels, but in the case of the London riots the problem seems to go way beyond labeling.

Those who participated in the violence are not deprived teenagers, nor are they teenagers living on the street. The many of the hundreds of suspects who have appeared in all night court sessions following the violence have jobs and some were university educated.

So what motivates a 24 year old graduate, with ambitions to become a social worker to steal a flat screen television from a looted electronics store? She has everything going for her, then why participate? what could possibly be the benefit?

We have witnessed the Arab Spring and understand the cause and nature of the revolts and the riots, to create democracy. Then in an already democratic what instigates such behavior?

Psychologists say that it boils down to lack of responsibilities. Children are given all the rights without the responsibilities. Parents are unable to discipline the children without being charged for being abusive. A child sueing a parent has become a norm not an exception.

Teenagers have developed a ?happy go lucky? attitude, they are not willing to take responsibilities for their actions and nor are they even willing to think about their actions.

One boy in Manchester admitted he had no restraints from his parents, saying: “When I get home, nothing is going to happen to me. I might get shouted at, but I’m not going to get grounded.”

Social norm

Another aspect which both police and psychologists are analyzing is about conforming to social norms.

?Most of the participants of the riot did not have any axe to grind, but just decided to go with the flow,? Mahmood a psychiatrist from Dubai told ?They participated in the riots as their friends did and this just spiraled out of control?

Peer groups is an important part of socializing for young adults. Sometimes, they go a little bit far to stay within the ?in? crowd. This seems to be the case.

Social media

So into this labyrinth of happenings, how did social media come into play.


Social networking sites have become standard tools in the arsenal of those organizing all kinds of mass action. They offer instant communications and easy ways for groups of like-minded individuals to come together. Systems such as Twitter’s hashtags (#) make it easy for ad hoc networks to form around a common interest, act together, and then disband.

In London, police officers were quick to blame Twitter and social networking sites for the organized criminality that has struck across the capital. The move was almost reflexive; Twitter’s role in such events is now well-known and expected. Twitter was certainly heavily used during the riots, with Monday setting a record for UK visits to the site.

The original organizers of the protests used Twitter to publicize and promote their action, with their messages soon spreading by blogs, e-mail, and Facebook.

Twitter on the scene

Perhaps the first widespread use of Twitter to organize a protest was in the aftermath of Moldova’s April 2009 election. With the victorious Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova accused of fraud and rigging the outcome, protest marches were organized. These demonstrations descended into chaos and became a riot, with buildings set ablaze, government offices ransacked, and shops looted.

Tweets about the protests used the hashtag #pman, short for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the name of the largest square in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital city. With these networks instrumental in its organization, the movement became widely known as the “Twitter Revolution.”

The Iranian election protests of 2009-2010, Tunisian protests of 2010-2011, and Egyptian protests of 2011 all saw Twitter and other social networks used in similar ways: a means for getting messages out and for rallying supporters.

Shift in blame

Although the rioters did tweet, continue to tweet about their acts of theft and vandalism, the blame has now shifted from Twitter to Blackberry Messenger (BBM).

Rioters appear to have been setting their BBM statuses to tell their friends that they were out looting, and messaging each other to decide the best places to attack.

Boardroom to the streets

BBM might at first seem a strange choice; RIM’s core audience for the BlackBerry is enterprise users, and the rioters are primarily (though not exclusively) disaffected teenagers and young adults. But BlackBerry Messenger has a very compelling feature: it’s cheap. Though RIM would insist that its BlackBerrys are smartphones, many of them sell at feature phone prices, putting them within reach of many people who can’t afford “proper” smartphones. BlackBerrys are also readily available on pay-as-you-go plans, further broadening their availability. BBM can also be cheap to use, with unlimited BlackBerry mail and Messenger typically costing about ?5 (around $8) a month?less than most data plans or unlimited text packages.

BlackBerry Messenger has another desirable feature: it’s a closed system. Unlike Twitter, where tweets are public broadcasts, or Facebook, where most messages are shared fairly indiscriminately, BBM is private. Most BBM messages are point-to-point, seen only by the sender and the receiver. Group messages are also possible; these too are only visible to those sending or receiving them. The entire system is also encrypted, offering less scope for surveillance by the police.

Unlike protestors campaigning for freedom and openness, for whom public visibility was important, privacy is a desirable characteristic for those engaged in criminality.

The use of BlackBerry Messenger in this way led to David Lammy, MP for Tottenham where the trouble first began, to call (on Twitter) for the service to be temporarily suspended.

For its part, RIM says that in all markets in which its products are available it will “cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement, and regulatory officials,” and that it will assist the authorities “in any way [it] can”. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the UK police can demand the phone records, location data, and Internet records about specific individuals. This doesn’t allow the police to make blanket requests?such as information about everyone in a particular area at a particular time, or everyone messaging the word “riot”?but it does mean that such evidence can be acquired about individuals identified in other ways (CCTV, for example).

RIM insists that it has no way of monitoring or intercepting e-mails sent through its enterprise mail system, but it has provided governments in some countries the ability to eavesdrop on the more consumer-focused BBM. The governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and India have all been given surveillance access to BBM.

RIM’s statement that it will comply with local law was not warmly received by hacking group TeaMp0isoN_. TeaMp0isoN_, which a couple of months ago raised its profile by attempting to dox (identify) LulzSec members, hacked into the official BlackBerry blog and posted a message warning RIM against aiding law enforcement. Claiming that any assistance will mean that “innocent members of the public” will “get charged for no reason at all,” the post threatened that TeaMp0isoN_ “has access to your database which includes your employees information; e.g – Addresses, Names, Phone Numbers etc.,” and that this information will be given to the rioters if RIM provides information to the police.

Though Facebook didn’t see the same UK traffic surge that Twitter experienced, it too had a small role to play in the drama. The BBC is reporting that a 17 year-old from Clacton, Essex has been arrested after allegedly using Facebook to incite others to meet up and riot.

Social networks are just a tool. Like any tool, some will use them for ill ends, but many others will put them to positive uses.

Source: CNN, Bloomberg, ARS, Google News

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