Huh? Why is BlackBerry being blamed for the London riots?

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In recent days, the streets of London have descended into bedlam as riots and looting spread, sparked by a protest organised around the shooting of an alleged gang member.

Scotland Yard reported that a total of 44 officers have been injured during running battles with angry youths and, as has become tradition, social networks such as Twitter have come under fire for enabling the orchestrations of public violence. This time, however, there has been much finger pointing at BlackBerry Messenger, the proprietary instant messaging service from Research In Motion.

Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said: “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality.” He went on to describe some messages posted on social media sites as “really inflammatory, inaccurate” and said police would consider arresting people using Twitter in relation to incitement to violence.

Following a barrage of speculative and sensationalist blog posts and newspaper articles that singled out BBM as weapon of choice for orchestrating the riots, the press was inadvertently awarded some fodder when BlackBerry tweeted: “We feel for those impacted by this weekend’s riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

Today, hackers threatened to release private information of RIM employees after the BlackBerry blog was hacked. The “altruistic” reason for the hack? Should RIM assists the authorities “…innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all…”.

How did BlackBerry get dragged into this? Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, recently released its annual annual Communications Market Report which surveyed 2 073 adults and 512 teenagers (aged 16 to 24) in the UK. The report revealed that 37 percent of teenagers surveyed preferred a BlackBerry. The iPhone was second with 17 percent.

The study, coupled with the type of observations made in a popular blog post by blogger and technologist Jonathan Akwue, sees BlackBerry once again being used as a scapegoat for its “shadow social network”. The post cites the popularity of BlackBerry with the youth culture in the UK, and that it is fast, virtually free, and unlike Twitter or Facebook, is private.

Just to be clear, the way the media arrived at this point is by confirming that 189.44 teenagers in the UK love BlackBerry and deducing that the rioting youths were therefore primarily organising the riots on their BlackBerries. Also, the man who sparked the riots, Mark Duggan, used BlackBerry Messenger to send his last message to his girlfriend, writing: “The Feds are following me.” Duggan was shot and killed during an alleged gunfight with police.

Now you have Luddite politicians jumping on the bandwagon as histrionic rumours of a BBM shutdown spread.

While you’re at it, why not ban the use of all instant messaging networks, telephones, SMS, vocal cords, pamphlets, carrier pigeons, sign language, signal fires, horseback messengers and and other communication tools. A mob isn’t some underground organisation with insidious and stealthy methods. The members of the recent London riots are in the street, drunk with herd mentality, mindlessly looting, setting fire and throwing stuff at the police. Official reports confirm no sign of organised activism, protests or even a social message. Taking away the mob’s communication tools won’t solve anything. It will be there in plain sight as law abiding citizens ring the alarm — an estimated 20 000 calls were made on the worst night. Just go arrest them.

Blaming the medium to save face when you’re outnumbered and dealing with mob psychology is not a solution. Humans are a persistent and enterprising species. If people want to act out, they’ll find a way to do just that. If you’re dealing with a mob, shutting down BBM will just give the mob something to be angry about.

Image: Ben Scicluna

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