What Do The London Riots Mean For Social Media?

August 10, 2011 - 6 minutes read - Blog, In the News..., Social Media

YouTube and Twitter use always surges during times of major upheaval, whether it’s a natural disaster or the London riots. Yesterday there were over 3.4 million UK visits to Twitter, which was up 15 percent from their busiest day to date. In fact, 1 in every 170 web searches landed Britons on Twitter.com, according to Experian-Hitwise analytics.

Locals Use Social Media For Good In London Riots

In the 1980s, we grew up on “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Crime Fighters.” We always wondered, in the backs of our minds, if we’d ever see someone we knew on the show. Nowadays, we have social media. You know that helpful facial recognition tool that works as a shortcut for tagging people in your photos? Well, if you are a lawless looter in the London riots, this could be your worst nightmare.

The London riots have sparked outrage in the respectable citizens of communities from London to Manchester and Liverpool, where the riots are spreading.People who are tired of their city, their businesses and their reputation being destroyed are volunteering to help catch criminals by creating, maintaining and surfing through online photo databases. For example, there’s…

  • Catch A Looter – A website of cell phone camera shots of looters who think they’ve gotten away scot-free.
  • Let’s Catch The London Rioters & Looters – Even Facebook has its own page condemning the riots.
  • London Disorder: Operation Withern – The London Police are looking for these suspects via Flickr.
  • Metro Police Photostream – Here is another official London Police page of looters being sought.
  • Google MapsThe UK Guardian is logging the location of past and present events in the London riots.
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Others Use Social Media As A Rallying Cry During The London Riots

BlackBerry and Twitter are receiving the brunt of the criticism for turning into forums where dastardly deeds are planned…

  • One person sent out a broadcast encouraging looting during the London riots, saying: “If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east london tonight, yes tonight!!”
  • Another said: “I don’t care what ends you’re from, we’re personally inviting you to come and get it in. Police have taken the piss for too long and to be honest I don’t know why its taken so long for us make this happen. We need a minimum of 200 hungry people. We’re not broke, but who says no to free stuff. Doesn’t matter if the police arrive cos we’ll just chase dem out because as you’ve seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING. Everyone meet at 7 at stratford park and let’s get rich.”
  • A third broadcast rallied protesters to “unite and hit the streets” in Kilburn, north-west London.
  • BlackBerry users were urged to head to Oxford Circus on Sunday for “pure terror and havoc & free stuff.”

According to The UK Guardian, “BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) appears to be the favoured method of planning the unrest that has swept across north London since Saturday evening. Unlike text messaging or Twitter, BBM is a free, private social network where almost all messages are encrypted when they leave the sender’s phone — meaning that many messages are untraceable by the authorities.”

BlackBerry agreed to cooperate with the police, shutting down its messaging system to stop the violence from spreading via text. Twitter said “the tweets must flow,” but agreed to help pinpoint the looting and rioting, and maintained that many people are using the site to facilitate cleanups.

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Possible Ramifications…

As we move forward, it’s interesting to note some of the possible ramifications for social media as a result of the London riots. First, we will see police using bystander-captured stills to track and identify suspects. Second, not all of the people captured on phones may be guilty of anything… and the facial recognition software (which is admittedly imperfect) may create quite a hassle for innocent people. Third, text messaging service may abruptly cut off in times of crisis — which could be good for preventing the spread of violence, yet would also be bad for everyone else using the service. Lastly, we will probably see companies that are under scrutiny — like Twitter and BlackBerry — ramp up their efforts to moderate some of the messages relaying through their systems to provide real-time help to authorities… yes, we are talking espionage here. None of these portents are good, but it’s important to keep in mind that, although it is quick and easy to use social media, it is not anonymous.

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