Bad network?

The riots that swept across the UK earlier this year spiralled out of control at an alarming rate, with troublemakers targeting towns and cities in a shocking wave of disorder.

London, Manchester and the Midlands were among the places that saw shops looted and buildings burned. The deaths of five people were also linked to the rioting as for several days the country appeared to be held to ransom by thugs.

While years ago such incidents would have been isolated, the nature of today’s social media savvy youth meant messages could quickly go out to a mass audience and gatherings were easily arranged.

Social networks, created for online interaction, were suddenly in the spotlight for a far more sinister reason and debates have since been raging about their use. Without them, would the UK have witnessed such shocking scenes this September?

Paul Brighton, Head of Media at the University of Wolverhampton, thinks not.

Who's to blame?

Facebook and Twitter were believed to be the main sources of organised trouble and were closely monitored by police. But while these were undoubtedly used to incite and arrange rouble, another source had been widely overlooked; the majority of activity was actually arranged via Blackberry Messenger.

Paul says: “Facebook and Twitter are in the public sphere and while they were both used to incite riots, Blackberry Messenger, which isn’t in the public domain, seemed to cause the most trouble. It’s like text messaging but with a larger group of recipients, reaching up to around 300 people.

“Up until that point it hadn’t really penetrated the public conscious. The stereotypical perception was that it was primarily used by company directors, bankers, and political aides sending  messages to MPs. The realisation dawned that it was now within reach of people without much money and had become a relatively cheap form of messaging.”

The general perception from users was that they could send messages with total impunity because they couldn’t be monitored. It was journalists covering the riots who first realised how widely Blackberry Messenger was being used but it soon became a police – and political – issue.

Social censorship?

In the wake of such civil disorder, the Government is looking at the feasibility of banning people from using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they are thought to be plotting criminal activity. MPs were recalled from their summer recess to discuss the possibility of stopping suspected rioters from spreading messages online and new legislation could be brought in sometime in the future.

In addition, tough sentences were handed out to those convicted, sending out a clear message to would-be offenders in a bid to deter future incidents.

In a landmark case, two youths were sentenced to four years for inciting riots on Facebook,  despite the fact that their attempts did not lead to any violence. Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, both from Cheshire, admitted using their Facebook accounts to encourage rioters.

Their lawyers admitted what their clients did was “monumentally foolish” but argued that their sentences were too long. However, an appeal was unsuccessful and the pair will have plenty of time to think about the consequences of their actions.

Oppressing opinion

Meanwhile, the debates continue. Paul says: “There is a big discussion around whether it’s a  reach of civil liberties to close down networks or whether there are ways of doing it in an efficient, targeted manner. One issue being considered is whether police could do a targeted switch-off." At the moment though, it seems you either switch everything off – which is too high a price to pay – or monitor the networks as closely as possible. There has been no decision as yet but a few hundred people shouldn’t be allowed to affect the communication channels for millions of people.”

Worldwide, the influence of social media varies. In countries such as China and Burma, social networking is limited, with whole areas where access to certain sites is blocked to prevent widespread networking and attempt to control mass communications.

The power of social media was also highlighted in Tunisia and Egypt, where Facebook and Twitter proved very successful in overthrowing the regimes there. It was powerful enough to use social media to create the threat of an uprising and persuade key players such as Barack Obama to convey their support. When it came to Libya there wasn’t the same degree of usage to start with and the dictatorship was such that it wasn’t susceptible to public opinion.

Paul says: “China is a key player in the world community but less responsive to world public opinion so the role of social media is weaker. In a genuinely oppressive regime it has much less effect.”

Public versus private

Regarding the future, he believes there are still more developments ahead: “We haven’t reached a peak yet because technology is still evolving.

“There is increased blurring of public and private so that’s another issue to be considered. There can still be some lack of understanding about mediums such as Twitter, with people forgetting that it’s a public forum.

“Celebrities have been caught out with inappropriate comments which could destroy their careers and footballers have sounded off about their managers with words that should be confined to the changing room.

“People are still learning about these mediums and there will be more to come but now they are so widely used, it won’t be simple to keep control of the millions of people who access them.”