You can’t predict a riot

Last August, England was subject to five days of rioting. The spark for the unprecedented interlude of social unrest was the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by the police. London erupted – there was widespread looting, disturbances, violence and arson.

The riots then spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol. For a tiny period of time, it felt like the country was petering on the edge of social disintegration. Luckily, in much the same way it started up, it died out unknowingly.

It was novel in many ways. There was, for example, no direct correlation between the death of Mr Duggan, a young black man, and many of the subsequent acts of violence. While some people did in fact conduct peaceful protests, for the large part, the riots took on a feverish quality, leaderless and without a cause.

Even now it is hard to define the root causes of the turbulence. A generation lost perhaps, with no opportunities to move? Sure. But, there were oddities, middle class kids rebelling against…well, what?

Another fascinating facet of the riots were the utilisation of social media and the use of instant messaging via mobiles to organise squads of rioters. Social unrest had become very (digitally) social.

Earlier this month, an unemployed man was sentenced in Wood Green Crown Court, London, to two years imprisonment at a young offenders’ institute. It is thought to be one of the first cases of its kind.

Terry Balson, 20, set up a page on Facebook entitled For the Riot (F**K the feds), which was “capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of one or more of a number of offences, namely riot, burglary and criminal damage”.

The police, though already monitoring social media websites actively, have in the wake of the riots, stepped up the level and intensity. Naturally, people are concerned that this kind of monitoring equates to a kind of Big Brother state, “the eye” ever-watchful of every movement you make in the digital world.

However, as Stuart Hyde, deputy chief constable, informed the Counter Terror Expo last month, the new age of openness entitles them the liberty to do so: “If your Facebook is open and you allow people to come in — tough, we will do it.”

More worrying, especially for stern advocates of freedom of information and civil liberties, was calls – or at least discussion points – about the viability of putting into motion social media blackouts in the event of similar rioting.

Last year, for example, the Conservative MP Louise Mensch, who is herself an active online communicator – Twitter is her preferred medium – backed such a measure.

“I don’t have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don’t have a problem with a brief road or rail closure,” she said at the time. “If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what. We’d all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots.”

However, as Greater Manchester Police explained, social media, though a powerful tool for rioters is equally beneficial. Not only are officers able to communicate directly with people on the street, they can use online networks to project positive messages and put out “hearsay fires” before they turn into something more damaging.

It’s a debate that has yet to come to any sort of logical conclusion. After all, in the context of Blackberry users messaging via BBM (its messenger service), surveillance is, by virtue of privacy, denied. To then block it in its entirety during a crisis would cause lots of problems.

This technology is supposed to liberate us. To deny that is to take a step backwards. There has to be better options out there. “Targeted blackouts” could be one option, using hashtags to identify conversations and then perpetrators another. It’s about being creative.

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