When England instituted the Riot Act of 1714, it did so to prevent “tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters.” That statute came off the books in 1973, but now British Prime Minister David Cameron is targeting the “riotous assemblies” of the online and social media worlds in the wake of deadly and destructive waves of rioters and looters.

It all started on Aug. 4, when father of four Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in the Tottenham area of north London.

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David Cameron. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister.

A peaceful protest against the killing on Saturday, Aug. 6, then deteriorated into violent confrontations between Metropolitan Police and rioters. The trouble continued and spread to other parts of London and later other parts of England, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester, largely dominated by torching vehicles and buildings, and widespread looting.

A total of five people have now died with more than 1,600 arrests since the trouble began.

When Parliament was recalled and members rushed back from summer breaks to sit in the house on Thursday, Cameron declared: “We are 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.”

BlackBerry Messenger’s role

Initial suggestions that Twitter was to blame were dismissed early on by both the BBC and The Guardian, which instead focused on what has been identified as a prime means of communication, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

A poll on the Daily Mail website suggested 53 percent of its readers were in favor of banning BBM after “inciting” riots. Channel 4 News reported one measure being considered was blocking some or all internet in an affected area while police regain control. But a meeting on Wednesday between the mobile phone industry and government raised serious concerns about such a proposal, they reported.

The Guardian on Monday offered a BBM account for people to message in confidence, publishing only limited ones, such as this:

Everyone in edmonton enfield woodgreen everywhere in north link up at enfield town station 4 o clock sharp!!!! Start leaving ur yards n linking up with you niggas. Guck da feds, bring your ballys and your bags trollys, cars vans, hammers the lot!! Keep sending this around to bare man, make sure no snitch boys get dis!!! What ever ends your from put your ballys on link up and cause havic, just rob everything. Police can’t stop it. Dead the fires though!! Rebroadcast!!!!!”

Mike Butcher, a technology journalist and digital adviser to London Mayor Boris Johnson, tweeted on Monday that it was unbelievable that BlackBerry had not shut down its BBM network, and repeated the accusation on the BBC Today program on Tuesday morning.

BlackBerry declined to comment to PBS MediaShift beyond a press statement from Monday, saying: “As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement  and regulatory officials. Similar to other technology providers in the U.K. we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and U.K. police force.”

On the BBC’s Question Time program on Thursday night, former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddock said police did not monitor social networking sufficiently. A man in the audience said his children knew three hours in advance that there was going to be trouble via social networks, and questioned why the police were not prepared.

But Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine, countered: “If someone does, ‘I predict a riot’, odds are they’re talking about a pop song not an actual act of violence. You can’t do that unless you set up a Stasi state.”

That said, a number of arrests have been made around the United Kingdom for posting Facebook messages inciting criminal damage, in Glasgow, Dundee, Hastings, Lancashire and Essex, though there were no reported incidents in those centers.

There have been no reports as yet of arrests connecting the messages via BBM to riots or looting. There have, however, been problems with rumors circulating via social networking, in particular an early one on the Saturday night when trouble began, that police had attacked a 16-year-old girl, a claim police said they were investigating. Some shops closed early because they were afraid of false reports of looting.

The Metropolitan Police did not return requests for comment from PBS MediaShift.

Online vs offline communities

Matthew Barnett, a youth worker in London, said politicians and commentators have focused on Twitter because it’s a buzz word. “Twitter is not a particularly popular medium for young people. It is public so does not lend itself to clandestine organizations,” he said.

“Most of the organizing was done by BBM, which is glorified texting,” he said. “Social media is still the hot young starlet. But, like the hot young starlet, everyone wants to cast social media in everything. In the context of the riots, it did have a role to play, but it has been exaggerated incredibly … Social media has become a scapegoat for some very serious questions raised from this violence.”

Barnett said the riots were not a clash of a “real” community and an online one populated by youth, the vast majority of whom were opposed and disgusted by the behavior.

“Young people don’t make the same distinctions between online and offline communities as an older demographic,” he said. “It’s just an extension of their local or religious or school communities. It’s not a distinct bubble. It’s just a medium of communication. I don’t believe the incitement to riot was from social media any more than from the newspapers.”

“We talk a lot about the instantaneous nature of social media, but between the incident in Tottenham which started this and the escalation and copycat, there was a full 24 hours, and that’s no faster than any other media,” he said.

Social media reaction

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The reaction and clean-up in the wake of the riots were far more public than any potential BBM incitement.

This image, of brooms held aloft once members of the community turned up to show local pride, was shared around the globe thanks to Twitter and Facebook.

Other groups were set up in almost every city and town saying, “let’s NOT start a riot,” with one calling for people to stay in and drink tea instead of rioting, getting more than 300,000 “attending.”

Grant Byrne, a student nurse living and training in Glasgow, said he learned of the riots initially on Facebook, then went to the BBC News website for confirmation. But days into the riots, he decided to start a Facebook page to call for the disturbances to be referred to as English, not the wider U.K., as no trouble had taken place in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland.

Within 24 hours, he had 13,000 fans of the page, far more than he ever expected, and most major media outlets no longer refer to “U.K. riots” on their news sites.

“There’s been a lot of good done on Facebook and other sites in the aftermath,” Byrne said. “Facebook is showing how people are coming together from all walks of life across Britain … The fact is, the online community has reacted faster than our government.”

So do Facebook pages supporting the police improve relations directly between those on the street and officers?

“Depends which streets,” Byrne said. “Tottenham? No. But in every street and city unaffected by the riots — or where the riots have been swiftly brought to an end as in Manchester — it gives us an opportunity to appreciate them and the job they do.”

Naturally, Facebook and other forms of social media can bring groups of people together. Byrne said for those normally forgotten, “the quiet kids in class, the victims of bullying, people who are alone — it creates a world where they can make friends without the necessary confidence.”

But there are limits, too. While Byrne’s page got 13,000 fans in 24 hours, it took a week coinciding with the riots for a page searching for a missing 59-year-old Scottish man to get just 7,000 supporters.

The influence of social media on gangs

Criminal gangs may have incited some of the looting during the course of the week, particularly in Manchester, according to Channel 4 News. (The video report is not available online.) Many more were simply opportunists. The Guardian has a datablog of those convicted so far here.

Many of the clashes beyond street level in the past week have been between politicians and commentators looking to apportion blame. Some have blamed government austerity measures and inequality, while others have focused on the breakdown of families, absent fathers, and the welfare state.

If social media was used as a tool in a negative way during the riots, is it the technology’s fault, the individuals using it, or the wider social and real-world contexts in which those individuals live?

Sheldon Thomas runs Gangsline, a London charity working to free those caught up in the gang lifestyle. He said technology has provided a new generation with the tools to be creative. But those using the technology need to be shown how it can be used positively.

He’s found that with largely self-taught skills, some gang members write lyrics, record tracks, make videos and upload them to YouTube and promote them on Facebook, all with subliminal attacks on rival gangs. Thomas said this then escalates to conflicts but it shows enormous creativity and possibilities if the skills are redirected.

“We’re not talking about young people that lack education,” he said. “They have creative skills we can transfer. How come nobody is looking to transfer those skills into building their own media companies? The school system does not help people who are creative. They’re bored in school, and creativity is never explored with this group of people.”

“Most of them in gangs are creative. We look to seek out that creativity. We are saying, ‘how can they benefit from their media skills themselves?’” he asked. “We should be creating educational streams that allow these skills to come through. Everyone wants to put them down. They know how to use the technology. We are the ones who need to show them how to use it positively.”

Echoing others who are using the riots to highlight the social breakdown, Thomas said, “You cannot have community if family structure is broken. Community has been fractured. Community has been destroyed. There is no more community. They have created their own community but in a negative way. We need to retrain them. That’s what we’re doing.”

What Now?

Hundreds of people are appearing in court, pleading guilty and being sentenced within days of arrest. Meanwhile, the dozen arrested in the U.K. phone hacking scandal are free on bail until October. An inquiry likely to last a year at least will be held into the hacking controversy, while the government has rejected any suggested inquiry into the riots that left five dead.

Just in February, Cameron praised the use of social media when he said: “[The movement] belongs to a new generation for whom technology – the internet and social media – is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best.” That is in stark contrast to suggesting banning it when people took to his own streets, despite all politicians making use of social media when reacting to events or campaigning.

The rush to judge and explain, including by targeting social media, was perhaps to be expected when such dramatic pictures flooded print, TV and online media.

But whatever the causes of crime and violence during the riots, Thomas said the answer has to be deeper than the media the perpetrators use.

“It’s no problem to change their minds,” he said. “It’s who’s willing to come up to them. We have to make them understand how powerful they could be if they changed their lifestyle. It’s about making them see that this lifestyle leads to nowhere.”

Photo of the “broom army” by Eduardo Carrasco via Flickr.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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