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News Analysis: Social media in focus after British riots

By by Huang Kun (Xinhua)

10:12, August 15, 2011

LONDON, Aug. 14 (Xinhua) -- Days of riots have calmed down in Britain, but social media remain in focus.

As British Prime Minister David Cameron has said when addressing the parliament: "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media."

Facebook and Twitter, and an instant messaging service BlackBerry Messenger, had been used by rioters to exchange messages on convening time and venues and others.

So the regulation of Internet is hotly debated after the riots, no matter it's under the name of social media or social networking, or the smaller concept of social websites, or the larger concept of new media.

What's the role of social media in the riots? And how should it been regulated?


It is easy to see most rioters in the disturbance are young people, and they are also the population group that prefers social media.

"Over 50 percent of Internet users in the age group of the rioters use social networking more than regular email. They tend to use it on mobile phones," said Peter Sommer, a professor in cybercrime at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Some people posted messages and pictures of rioting on websites as Facebook and Twitter, which are in many cases inciting followers.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) came to the spotlight during the riots. An internal service among BlackBerry users, the BBM offers a covert way of communication that is hard to be intercepted by the police.

Young people could be easily incited by their friends and their actions together could create a sense of belonging, which amplify what happens.

"The new media speed things up, sometimes helping to make ideas go viral," said Robin Mansell, Professor of New Media and the Internet at London School of Economics and Political Science.

However, social media is just a tool and there are also people using it for good reasons during the riots. "They used it to find out what was happening in different areas and to communicate the kind of good news that the mainstream media are not usually interested in," said Profess Claire Warwick, Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at University College London.

"For example, a picture of people making tea for policemen, using a riot shield as a tray, has been widely tweeted. And the Twitter (campaign) RiotCleanUp was used to organize hundreds of volunteers, who met to clean up the damage."


What happened in Britain is not alone. Problems connected with social media are global.

In Africa, the Egyptian government had shut down the Internet to control disturbance early this year. Both Facebook and Twitter were blocked consequently.

In North America, it was reported by CBC News in 2009 that the Canadian police complained the usage of BlackBerry by criminals made it hard for the police to listen in on suspects. The BlackBerry smartphone was developed by the Canadian company RIM.

In Asia, the Indian authorities have asked RIM to provide means to access the encrypted data, following concerns that it could be used by terrorist and rebel groups, especially after the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

"It is not news that new media have gone global or that governing the new media is a challenge for governments," said Professor Mansell, "what is news is that despite the efforts to shut down networks in some countries, the protests are carrying on."

Therefore, she stressed that new media "does not cause the problems in the first place", and the underlying reasons lie in the social fabric.

But even for the internet itself, it could be a challenge to governments. "Internet as a whole is a challenge to governments because it is both the means of great economic and social improvement but also a route for criminality," said Sommer.

"Selective control of the Internet is extremely hard, both technically and at a management level," said the professor.


On Tuesday, when the riots hit their climax, David Lammy, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, London, where all the riots started, appealed for RIM to shut down BlackBerry Messenger in attempt to stem further unrest.

"When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them,"

Cameron told the Parliament on Thursday.

"So we are working with the Police, the intelligence and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality," he said.

Those words are seen as a signal of tightening control on social media. And there are indeed actions taken by police. For example, a 16-year-boy was arrested in Glasgow, Scotland after posting on Facebook message inviting people to follow rioting in English cities, though there were hardly any riots in Scotland.

So far, Facebook and Twitter remain open in Britain and BlackBerry services goes on as normal.

But how should the social media be regulated in the future? "Proven acts of criminality on the Internet or social media should be pursued and prosecuted, just as they would if committed in real life," said Professor Warwick.

In the meanwhile, Warwick believed calls to shut down social media in times of crisis are misguided.

Mansell believed people should recognize the freedom of the Internet, but it is also important to "encourage responsibility" for what people do in the cyberspace.

She also suggested "using existing law to enforce good behavior just as they do in the offline world."


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