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Technology and riots

August 14, 2011


LAST week’s riots in London and other British cities stirred many socio-political issues that the UK prefers to leave unaddressed: class, race, communal tensions, literacy levels.

The profile of the young, often white rioters led many to question the integrity of Britain’s social fabric, and the validity of Prime Minister David Cameron’s notion of Big Society, which views the nuclear family as the bedrock of the state. In Birmingham, the killing of three British Asians of Pakistani descent in a hit-and-run incident threatened to stoke hostility with the local Afro-Caribbean community, and cast doubt on the success of British multiculturalism. In the midst of these complex issues, the widespread rioting delivered an unlikely villain: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

According to high-ranking British police officials, online and mobile technologies played a key role in sparking, organising, and coordinating riots across London. The initial gathering of people mourning Mark Duggan — the 29-year-old whose death sparked the riots — and seeking revenge occurred on Facebook, an online social network. The first call by rioters to disrupt a carnival in Hackney was circulated on the micro-messaging service Twitter. But BBM, an instant, private, one-to-many messaging service available on BlackBerry smart phones, quickly became the technology of choice for rioters. They used the service to taunt the police and identify the timing and location of looting in Oxford Circus, Kilburn, and Islington.

In a knee-jerk response, Cameron is now calling for a crackdown on online social networks and mobile technologies. He is seeking to proscribe potential troublemakers from using digital communication tools; in coming weeks, Home Secretary Theresa May is scheduled to meet executives from Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (the makers of the BlackBerry phone) to discuss ways in which to limit access to these technologies to prevent criminality and organised violence.

Free-speech activists have described Cameron’s stance as totalitarian, and argue that there is little difference in principle between the prime minister’s efforts to block digital access and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to shut down the Internet and cellphone networks this January to discourage anti-government uprisings. Still, Cameron’s anti-technology position is gaining traction. For example, the Labour MP for Westminster North declared last week that new media technologies such as Facebook and YouTube are fuelling the gang culture in London by helping gangs recruit new members and intimidate each other through threatening or provocative posts and videos.

These political responses are among the worst examples of technological determinism, based as they are on the assumption that the technology caused the trouble. But Cameron and other British politicians are not the first to make this mistake. There is an increasing tendency to ascribe political and civic agency to digital tools. Many still claim that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was brought about thanks to SMS text messaging, which allowed citizens to coordinate demonstrations in the central square in Kiev. President Barack Obama’s request in 2009 to Twitter to delay a temporary shutdown so as to keep Iranian protesters tweeting has left a lingering impression that Twitter fuelled the Green Movement. And it is accepted as truth that Facebook inspired the Arab Spring, particularly the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Despite this neat narrative, it is important to remember that online and mobile technologies are largely irrelevant to the political movements — or rioting — that they allegedly galvanise. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the variety of tools that people have recently utilised to mobilise, whether for good or for ill: SMS, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, chat forums, listservs and now BBMs. There is nothing intrinsic to any of these technologies that help them organise large groups of disaffected people. Rabble-rousers in London used BBM not because it is a riot-friendly technology, but because 37 per cent of British teenagers were already using the BlackBerry smart phone to stay connected and knew it was the best way to reach out to their peer group.

Denying people access to digital technologies will not prevent revolutions and riots. Organised mass behaviour has predated online social networking, and can continue in its absence. For example, political activists who set Karachi alight on Friday night were not networking via BBM. Where online and mobile technologies are not available, people who are hell-bent on taking action will rely on voice phone calls, graffiti, open-air meetings, megaphones, radio broadcasts and the old-fashioned word of mouth.

It is important to draw the distinction between technologies and behaviours to stave off rash responses such as Cameron’s. There is a very fine balance between free speech and security, and government officials should not be allowed to tip it over without caution and thoughtfulness. Digital tools enable many basic human rights — to privacy, expression and protest. Inspiring public outrage against new technologies (of the type previously directed against novels, rock and roll music, and video games) allows governments to subvert those rights without being accountable for their regressive actions, making it seem as if they are targeting technologies, and not vulnerable publics.

If a place like Britain begins to block off Internet and mobile access in the name of security, what do we imagine will happen in places like Pakistan? After all, one man’s miscreant is another man’s activist or nationalist. Who will be the arbiter of which populations are allowed the benefits of modern technologies and which ones can’t be trusted near those supposedly troublemaking tools? Those itching to deny youngster access to new media technologies should remember that the same digital tools that facilitated last week’s riots also promoted local community cleanups in the wake of looting, with citizens using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate their civic efforts.

The writer is a freelance journalist.