Technology and UK Riots

Riots and unrest in the UK have made headline news around the world this week and many are now examining the role that technology played in those riots. The trouble began at a demonstration over the police shooting of a 29-year-old man in Tottenham August 4th. The scene devolved into violence which quickly spread to several London neighborhoods. Over the hours and days that followed rioting spread across the country with burglaries, violence, and arson erupting in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and elsewhere. Over 16,000 police were deployed to take control of the situation, arresting thousands of mostly teens and young adults.

As with the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, smart phones and social media played a major role in the UK riots. The communication between youths taking part in the riots was mostly through the the Messenger program on Blackberry smart phones. Facebook and Twitter were also used by rioters to incite violence and boast about criminal activities. Over a dozen individuals have been arrested and charged with inciting violence on Facebook. Prime Minister David Cameron is considering shutting down access to social media in times of violence. The U.K.’s Home Secretary Theresa May is meeting with Facebook, Twitter and RIM officials to discuss how the companies can work with police to help derail communications between criminals. Facebook has already been pulling posts from users involved in inciting violence and RIM promises to help find riot planners that used Blackberry phones.

The UK government understands that, while technology can be used to cause trouble, social media and communication technologies are also powerful tools for good. UK citizens and law enforcement have been using social media to find the criminals that took part in the riots. Police are also pouring over hours of video captured on security cameras mounted around cities in efforts to identify those responsible for the violence. The investigation into the 2011 UK riots will undoubtedly be a long term process. Meanwhile cities around the world are wondering if they aren’t also at risk, and if so, how might it be nipped it in the bud.