Social media used to spread Britain's riots

August 9, 2011 - 6:15 PM
Britain Riot

A woman walks past a damaged supermarket in Ealing, west London, after a night of rioting, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. In London, groups of young people rampaged for a third straight night, setting buildings, vehicles and garbage dumps alight, looting stores and pelting police officers with bottles and fireworks into early Tuesday. The spreading disorder was an unwelcome warning of the possibility of violence during London's 2012 Summer Olympics, less than a year away. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

LONDON (AP) — Some of the text messages read like real-time rallying calls for rioters.

"If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London," one looter messaged before the violence spread.

Others direct troublemakers to areas of untapped riches — stores selling expensive stereo equipment, designer clothes, alcohol and bicycles.

Most show a portent of even worse things to come.

Encrypted messages sent via BlackBerrys are being used by mobs to encourage rioting across Britain — mayhem born of an incendiary mixture of conditions that converged during Europe's sleepy summer vacation season.

Many of the masked or hooded youths have been photographed typing messages on their cellphones while flames engulf cars and buildings.

Conditions have been perfect for the unrest. Britain's economic outlook is bleak, youths are out of school and unemployed, police ranks have been depleted by summer vacations, and social media sites — coupled with dramatic video of the rioting — have bolstered a mob mentality and spread disobedience.

BlackBerry's messaging system is popular among youths because it's free, compatible with multimedia and private, compared with Facebook and Twitter. Its encrypted messages give troublemakers an added benefit: Police aren't able to immediately trace message traffic the way they can with regular cellphones.

Social media have been a potent force in fueling the riots that began Saturday in London's boroughs and later spread to other cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol. Messages have also been sent via regular texts and on Facebook. One 16-year-old boy was detained Tuesday for allegedly encouraging violence on Facebook.

But the social networks also have provided refuge for fearful residents and shop owners who say police efforts have been feeble and slow. Twitter is helping to pinpoint areas of violence, organize community cleanup groups and alert people of alternative routes they can use.

BlackBerry said it was cooperating with police, but shutting down the messaging system could penalize more than just the troublemakers. More than 45 million people use the BlackBerry messaging system worldwide. President Barack Obama is said to use the same secure system to communicate.

David Lammy, a lawmaker from the Tottenham area where the rioting began, called for BlackBerry to suspend its messaging service. On Tuesday, hackers compromised BlackBerry's blog site in response to the company saying it would cooperate with police.

Lawmaker Tom Watson of Birmingham said police also needed to learn from the proliferation of social media sites being used to organize protests.

"The messages and organizational messages can be distributed very quickly. I think that should probably have an impact on the way we do future policing." he said.

Britain's riots began after last week's police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four. According to British media, one of the last messages that Duggan sent was via BlackBerry's messaging system, also known as BBM.

"The Feds are following me," he allegedly wrote to his girlfriend, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Some of the rioters have laughed off claims that the unrest was sparked by any one grievance. One man who identified himself only as "Zed" said the riots were "just an excuse for everyone to smash up the place" and that stuff "tastes better when it's free."

Others on Tuesday night boasted of alcohol-fueled rampages. Britain has a culture of binge drinking with a recent surge in alcohol-related diseases among the young. The legal age to purchase alcohol in Britain is 18, but stores often fail to ask for IDs.

Britain is full of contrasts between the haves and have-nots, where areas of soot-stained apartment buildings are a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace. It is also a place where the class system is imprinted on the country's social fabric, seen clearly in the political and business elite.

Prime Minister David Cameron, known for his posh accent and privileged education, is thought to have lost votes in last year's election because he was seen as too much of an elitist who couldn't understand the common man.

The past year has seen mass protests against the tripling of student tuition fees and cuts to public sector pensions. In November, December and March, small groups broke away from large marches in London to loot. In the most notorious episode, rioters attacked a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, to a charity concert.

"This is an uprising of all people — black, white, gay, straight," said a man who identified himself as Bryn Phillips, 28, who picked through the ruins of a convenience store in east London on Monday night.

According to July figures from Britain's Office of National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds is unemployed — the highest rate of youth unemployment in some 20 years. Overall unemployment rates, however, have remained stable.

"These young people, who seem to have no stake in society, are trashing their own communities," said lawmaker Diane Abbott, whose Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency has seen a lot of the trouble. "We cannot continue to have increasing numbers of looters on the streets night after night."

Hot-tempered youths are fueled by temperate and drier-than-normal weather. One middle-aged man carrying a recycling bin full of beer bottles and soft drinks Monday night blamed the government's planned spending cuts — some of the harshest cuts since World War II designed to slash Britain's multibillion-pound (multibillion-dollar) deficit.

"People are traumatized by the cuts," he said, identifying himself only as Joe.

Cameron condemned the violence and warned that 16,000 police officers would take back the country's streets. More BlackBerry messages were encouraging weekend protests.

"This is definitely not the 1980s," said London School of Economics political scientist Tony Travers, referring to past race riots and other unrest. "And it is not the same as the instance that occasionally happened in French suburbs. Tottenham and other areas are relatively poor (but) they are not areas of unremitting poverty."

Britain's police force has been weakened by budget cuts and summer vacations. It's also no secret that most officers don't carry guns, and water cannons and tear gas haven't been used in years. Officials said they may be forced to use plastic bullets to control the crowds if violence persists.

"Different people have different views about the causes, but there is no excuses for it," said Labour leader Ed Miliband.