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WebWise news report - social media and the riots

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 09:35 UK time, Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The riots that have swept across the capital and other parts of the UK have seen the finger of blame scanning everything from social funding to social media.

Instant mobile messaging and social networking sites were reportedly used to recruit rioters to partake in criminal activity.

'BBM' has been highlighted as one of the key modes of communication used by rioters. Standing for BlackBerry Messenger, it is a form of free instant messaging between BlackBerry smartphones that can be directed at private groups of users. As these messages are sent across a secure space, it is unclear just what role instant mobile messaging played, but as is the case with social media groups and events, it can help foster a sense of strength in numbers.

This collective identity can work both ways though, and just as widespread messages may have been used to round up troops for looting and disorder, so too have they played a large part in helping to overcome the events of the last few days.

In simple acts of courtesy, people have posted on Facebook about which roads have been closed off or where they've seen trouble on their journeys home in case the information is of any use in helping friends stay safe. Yesterday's trending topics on Twitter included #prayforlondon and #riotcleanup. The latter has resulted in thousands of people going out to help clean up the mess in the streets. Meanwhile, those behind #operationcupoftea have urged people join an 'anti-riot' and 'Stay In And Drink Tea'. Their Facebook account already has 180,000 supporters.

Police forces have also used Twitter to warn users against inciting violence online. One user was tweeted by Hampshire police force yesterday warning them that "it is an offence to commit or encourage riot" and that their message "had been referred for consideration for criminal investigation."

It is impossible to say whether we would have riots on such a scale without modern day technology because social media and instant messaging are - for better or worse - a fundamental part of our current culture of communication. We can no more blame social media for the riots than we can the telephone for prank calls or television for swear words.

Social media may have been used as one of many tools to organise acts of violence, but it is to its credit that it is equally powerful as a means of uniting people to deal with the aftermath.

Learn more about social media basics with BBC WebWise:


Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.



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