Social media, yet again, is being hailed and blamed as the latest public uprising straddles the virtual and physical worlds.
Recently heralded as the most reliable source for breaking news in the News Corp hacking scandal, as well as earlier during the Arab Spring, the current riots in the U.K. have overflown onto social media, where citizen (and professional) reporting, and safety messages to the public — while the 24/7 stream of unchecked and unverified communications were simultaneously being blamed for helping fuel the fires.
On the third night of rioting (sparked by protests over the police shooting of alleged drug-dealer Mark Duggan in the Tottenham section of North London), the mayhem has spread to Hackney and Birmingham, England's second-largest city, with scores injured and hundreds arrested. The chaos includes reports of a teenager in Glasgow arrested for reportedly using Facebook to incite riots there.
Police in Britain are investigating social networking (and smartphones such as BlackBerry) as a potential culprit in fueling the fires of misinformation. BlackBerry-maker RIM has been working with authorities, while there's a backlash building against social hooligans, including a Tumblr account uploading photos of looters.
Twitter is being used (above) to organize citizens to take positive actions, with an artist-originated Clean Up London springing to life and quickly gathering supporters and participants — and the hope the humble effort might continue year-round.
Wired UK blogger Duncan Geere debunks the notion that Twitter helped fuel protests, writing:
"While it's true that some journalists were posting live updates from the frontline, Twitter was predominantly a swirling maelstrom of fear, uncertainty and doubt, punctuated by moments of absolute nonsense. For example, an image was widely circulated of tanks and soldiers in desert camouflage, claiming that the army was assembling in Bank. It turned out to be a picture from the Egyptian protests earlier in the year. At one stage, it was even claimed that rioters had attacked London Zoo and set free a selection of animals, including a tiger."
According to Paul Lewis, a reporter for The Guardian, BlackBerry was the preferred mobile device for those covering, participating and trying to squelch the riots. TechCrunch Europe editor Mike Butcher, an advisor to London mayor Boris Johnson, also believes that BlackBerry's virtually untraceable BBM (Messenger SMS service, used by an estimated 37% of British teens) is to blame for facilitating riot organizers.
Can law enforcement keep up on the social front? At least one representative says they can. "The police are ahead of the curve in information technology and would have experience of the use of social networking sites by troublemakers," Steve O'Connell, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority that oversees London's Metropolitan Police Service, told Bloomberg.
"My expectation is that the police, like all of us, can access Twitter," he added. "I would expect the Met to use every technology available to get it sorted out, make the arrests, and bring peace back to our neighborhoods."
Meanwhile, in another nation reeling from public crisis, Twitter is seeing some of the highest traffic spikes in its five-year history, as the 140-character tweet conceit resonates in Japan with a deeply embedded cultural chord.
"Twitter could be something like haiku was 400 or 500 years ago when it first emerged," argues Stanford University's Richard Dasher, an expert in Japanese linguistics, and participant in a study that analyzed millions of tweets in Japan before, during and after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Prior to March, Twitter use in Japan was largely confined to “young, technical IT-types" who saw it as "a game for daily communication as opposed to a useful network tool," his study found, and other social networks like Mixi and Gree, where users have anonymity were more popular.
But when disaster disabled the nation's regular lines of communications, Japan turned to social media. Their tweets spiked to more than 5,000 per second five separate times after the quake and tsunami, a 500% increase, and within a week, Twitter membership in Japan rose by one-third.
"Twitter shifted from a one-dimensional tool to a multi-dimensional platform (news network, donation solicitation, 'I'm OK' broadcast, emotional support). Twitter is blurring the lines between the public and the private, raising new generations of Japanese who are more comfortable sharing their emotions publicly and openly," continued the report conducted by brand strategy company Bassett & Partners and interTrend Communications, specializing in marketing to Asian countries.
"In Japan, it was almost like this was therapy, a healing kind of tool," said Tom Bassett, Bassett & Partners' CEO.
Hopefully those words will come true in London and beyond, even as the rioting in the streets continues in Britain. As high street businesses smolder, London 2012 Olympics organizers review security plans and the Visit Britain tourism authority pulls its ads, brands are being cautioned to not take advantage of the situation:
.... although they wouldn't be run by humans if they didn't share how they're being affected: