Media, Politics

A brief look: Social networking, Public Enemy No 1

By Rebecca Davis 15 August 2011

BlackBerry smartphone maker, RIM, might be forced to open its records on the BBMing of London – now known as “the BlackBerry Riots” – after its direct messaging service was widely used to fuel riots and lootings in the UK. Could the smartphone replace the AK47 as the icon of modern revolution?  By REBECCA DAVIS.

Last week wasn’t good for social networking or the technology enabling it. In what must be a PR nightmare for the smartphone manufacturer, the violence in the UK has already been dubbed “the BlackBerry riots” in reference to the pivotal role played by the BlackBerry Messenger application in mobilising London’s youth. After coming under considerable pressure, BlackBerry’s manufacturers, Research In Motion agreed to “cooperate” with Scotland Yard to help track down the rioters. Exactly what form this cooperation will take is unclear, but without a warrant RIM could be asked to hand over information like the names of users, the number of messages sent, to whom and their locations. With a warrant, RIM might be forced to produce the content of the messages. In a statement redolent of the full force of “Big Brother”, David Cameron told the UK parliament on Thursday that “when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them”.

On the same day, San Francisco’s Bart subway system admitted cellphone signal at a number of the American city’s subway stations had been cut off to thwart potential protestors’ setting up meetings. The protest had been planned to express concerns about a number of recent shootings by transit officials. Civil rights advocates are outraged, but the Bart police force defended the decision, saying “This wasn’t about free speech. It was about safety.”

What both incidents reveal is that while social networking and communications technology are often touted as the ultimate weapons in the armoury of activists, its power can just as easily be turned against users. This point has been made for some time by cyber-sceptics like Evgeny Morozov, whose book “The Net Delusion”, published earlier this year, pointed to how adept anti-democratic regimes have become at using networks like Twitter to their advantage.

In what was surely a marketing own-goal, Facebook chose Tuesday – the day after the most violent UK riots – to launch Facebook Messenger. Its stated aim? “A faster way to message friends and small groups”. Just the thing for a teenager with a riot to organise. DM






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