A very social riot

It’s now known that BlackBerry Messenger was used extensively to spread the word on the UK riots. Does that mean that authorities should be able to shut down networks used to incite civil unrest?

It’s a question that has been raised by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In the aftermath of the riots, it is a view that could gain some popular appeal. On this week’s Twisted Wire, you’ll hear James Whale, drive announcer of London’s talkback station LBC, calling for similar controls. I catch up with its overnight announcer, Cristo, to get his take on the idea and how technology was used during the riots.

Mike Butcher, technology journalist and adviser to London’s mayor Boris Johnson, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that BlackBerry Messenger should have been shut down. He says that he was quoted out of context and, with the benefit of hindsight, he calls for a more balanced approach.

That approach should include tracking social media usage in real time. Dr Andrew Starkey is a founder of Brand Aura, which analyses tweets and other open networks. He says that even though the call to action was usually made on secure media, it did also spill out into Twitter, and real-time analysis could have predicted some of the riot scenes as much as five hours in advance.

Surely that’s reason enough for all social media to be kept live, whatever the circumstance. But does that mean that authorities won’t try to turn it off in a sort of knee-jerk reaction? And could it happen here? Stephen Collins, a board member at Electronic Frontiers Australia, says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

In the meantime, the work can start in using social media to analyse the root cause of the UK riots. There is a mass of data available — perhaps technology can help provide some answers to a question that the whole of the UK is asking: why did this happen? For example, as Andrew Starkey suggests in the podcast, look at the difference between associations with the word “fed” used in tweets — a word supposedly used more by rioters, compared with the word “met” — what everyone else calls London’s metropolitan police.

First published on ZDNet

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