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Tottenham Rioters, BlackBerry Messaging, and the Rise of the 'Flash Mob' As Something Scary

BY Nick Judd | Monday, August 8 2011

In the aftermath of this weekend's riots in London, in which 170 people have been reportedly arrested, some folks are focusing on the role instantaneous communication played in the making of a scene of mayhem.

From The Telegraph:

Gang members used BlackBerry smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying executives to organise the mayhem.

The BlackBerry phone, one of the first devices to offer mobile email, was once the preserve of business leaders and political aides but has become increasingly popular with members of urban gangs and teenagers.

The Sun and Daily Mail appeared to blame Twitter for making it easy for people to egg one another into a looting spree. Meanwhile, social media strategist Jonathan Akwue noted that many people in Tottenham mentioned hearing about the riots or spreading a call to riot using BBM. He also put these events in a historic context, mentioning an October 1985 anti-police riot in the same neighborhood — a historic backdrop that Andrew Gilligan complicates, noting that crime in Tottenham is down since the 1980s, the relationship between police and residents has improved, and the racial imbalance between a minority neighborhood and a predominantly white police force has eased over time.

Akwue's point is that BBM is perhaps a more interesting animal than Twitter, as the young people using it can operate beyond the public eye — a potentially disturbing thought.

"The key point here is that although these messages are spreading virally," he writes, "by being shared via BBM they have been less visible to the outside world, making them harder to track."

This isn't the first time you've seen people in the networked world outflank authorities who, apparently, are not — students used social media to evade police "kettling" tactics during December protests against cuts to government spending on higher education.

And it's not the first glimmer of what I'd suspect will be a growing news theme, crime by social media. Here in the U.S., a story that's appeared on several cable TV networks has to do with what they're calling "flash robs" — mass arrivals at shops and convenience stores with the intent to grab merchandise and leave, organized, if reports are to be believed, through social media.

Footage has made it to YouTube from Philadelphia, after a riot in March 2010, from an incident at a New York donut shop in May, from an Ottowa, Canada convenience store, and many others.

"For a growing number of marginalized youth in urban America," the Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote last week, "especially young black men, who have been the hardest hit by America’s economic troubles, flash robs have become a way to feel powerful, some social-justice experts say. For others, they could be a new outlet for Internet-age thrill-seekers."

The lens through which social media are viewed as part of the Tottenham riots, and in other cases where they are implicated as tools of criminal or antisocial behavior, is one that shines brightest on the fears some have about the shifts in power that disintermediation has wrought.

These stories portray the dark side of the "flash mob," a phenomenon that had a reputation as a whimsical side effect of the networked world — and not even the classic flash mob is safe, such as a well-intentioned movie premiere last month in Los Angeles that went awry. And the response has been, in some cases, frantic. The city of Cleveland, for instance, has sought to ban flash mobs entirely.

In Tottenham, though, as everywhere, the simple fact is that people are more connected and can communicate more rapidly than ever before — and the consequences are both good and bad.

"I am pleased to note there are some very supportive messages from people towards the police though," an anonymous policeman using the moniker "Inspector Winter" writes on his blog, in the wake of a shift in Tottenham. "And when I have had a chance to update my Twitter feed the messages of support I have received have been a great boost."