Social Media and Social Unrest: How Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Factor into Flash Mobs, Riots and Uprisings

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Arab spring, flash mobs, and last week’s riots in England. What two things do these have in common? Well, first, they have a people ready to be incited to action – be it for the cause of democracy, for a flashmob, or for chaos, mayhem, and lining their own pockets with ill-gotten goods. And second, social media has contributed to the lightning speed with which each of the groups coordinated and coalesced.

In England, many involved in the recent riots and looting used Blackberry Messenger (BBM) on their Blackberrys to coordinate and tip others off as to where to show up next. Others attempted to incite friends via Facebook (and some have already experienced the swift hammer of British justice, and been sentenced to as many as four years for even unsuccessful efforts to incite via Facebook).

Explains Los Angeles County Sheriff Captain Mike Parker, “This one is so big and so fast and has so many branches to it, there are definitely some who feel overwhelmed by where to begin. You have to trust your younger officers who were raised on it and think it’s perfectly normal.”

In England, Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested that where to begin may be to bar people from using social media if they are suspected of using it for ill.

And in Ohio, the Cleveland City Council went a step further and actually attempted to outlaw using social media to organize violent flash mobs (it was vetoed by the mayor).

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Most recently, in California, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut down cell phone service at their stations after they discovered a plan being passed around on social media to stage a protest in response to the shooting by a BART police officer of a suspect (the man was allegedly wielding a knife).

Across the pond, authorities are also contemplating whether it is appropriate to shut down social media access when things are getting out of hand. In fact, a British official acknowledged that at one point during the rioting, they considered looking to switch Twitter off in the region. Said Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin, “I contemplated seeking the authority to switch it off. The legality of that is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset. The only problem with it is it’s a massive amount of information that you need to synthesise and some of it is quite obviously wrong and rather silly. As a result of that we did not request that that was turned off but it is something we are pursuing as part of our investigative strategy.”

Note his observation that “it is also a very useful intelligence asset.” For while those who would incite illegal activities, and even violence, are finding social media a handy way to acheive those ends, two can – and do – play that game, and law enforcement agencies have taken to monitoring the social mediasphere.


Scotland Yard, for example, credits monitoring both Blackberry Messenger, and Twitter, for thwarting certain riots last week.

“There was intelligence that the Olympic sites, that both Westfields and Oxford Street were indeed going to be targeted,” explained British Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens. “We were able to secure all those places and indeed there was no damage at any of them,” Owens added, explaining that “All those locations were protected and we were able to respond because of our live-time monitoring of Twitter and BBM.” (BBM stands for Blackberry Messenger.)

And other planned riots in England last week were discovered and stopped in their tracks when police reviewed messages on the phones of arrested rioters.

So what is the answer? Should authorities have the ability – and the right – to, in essence, stop speech – even speech that, while seeking to incite, has not necessarily succeeded?

Should individuals have the right to call for riotous assemblies made up of hundreds of their closest Facebook friends – and their friends’ friends, and those friends’ friends’ friends?

And what, if any, duty do these social media services like Twitter and Facebook have, to their users, or to their users’ intended targets?

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4 thoughts on “Social Media and Social Unrest: How Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Factor into Flash Mobs, Riots and Uprisings

  1. I think the govt SHOULD be able to temporarily shut down access ONLY to social networking sites & websites being used to instigate crime in an EMERGENCY situation, such as the London riots. Also, those guilty of using them to incite crime, should be charged with the crimes they are soliciting people to commit. But I think it should be limited to just either shutting down the LOCAL PEOPLE’S access to just those types of things & should NOT be permitted to just pull the plug on ALL internet & or cell phone traffic.
    Also, I feel it would be unfair to expect Facebook,Twitter, etc to scan through MILLIONS of posts to look for criminal activity.
    Here in the USA police CAN get a warrant to access messages of users of any social networking site/website to catch the instigators by using programs that scan for certain KEY WORDS & then can look closer to see if they are guilty of a crime, instigating crime, or if the message is harmless & just happens to contain certain KEY WORDS.
    It’s my understanding that the govt ALREADY DOES scan over seas calls, emails, & such for certain keywords as part of our national security.
    Electronics have provided law enforcement with a LOT of help in both reducing & preventing crime. But, unfortunately, it has also given criminals more tools to work with to help them TO COMMIT crimes.
    It’s a REALLY tough call to find the line between freedom of speech, privacy on the internet, & with email. I’m certainly glad I don’t have to make those decisions!

  2. Dave, I agree with the sentiment, but I liken the public to an individual with a toy or privilege in this instance. You can have it and do what you want with it, but if you abuse it or use it to hurt other people somehow, then you’ve shown that you’re not capable of handling the responsibility of being awarded that toy or privilege. (I’m becoming increasingly hesistant these days of using “right.”)

    To apply it to the examples like in the article above, and going off the question, “Should individuals have the right to call for riotous assemblies . . .,” if such media start being used to incite violence, then I say that it’s entirely appropriate to shut them down and quite possibly even censor them until the public can handle using those services responsibly again. Now the devil’s in the details, and any agreement or bar on anything is going to end up being a long battle of when to stop and start speech and methods of speech, but in principle, I would agree with that kind of plan of action in the future.

  3. Any dummy can own and use a mobile phone, blackberry or whatever for instant communications. There are ALOT of people that have these devices (I personally don’t have a need for one) and they can transmit any old truffle they want to.

    Even mentally ill people can own and use a mobile phone and diseminate whatever they like on it. Eg give a sociopath a mobile phone and they will quite hapily use it to do their best to destroy another person’s life, by sending malicious content to their network of friends. I’m speaking first had, after experiencing a hate campaign fuelled by electronic communications.

  4. This could be the start of a very slippery slope to outright censorship, which some governments, such as the Chinese, are already implementing, as is well known

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