Technology and the English Riots

Technology and  the English Riots

Facebook, Twitter and the Blackberry messenger services have been under the spot light for their use in the English riots and the temporary loss of police control of our street  What has largely escaped public scrutiny is the role of old technology (television). It is natural that the impact of the new communications technologies will come under particular scrutiny if for no other reason that they are new. But if technology is causing a shift of competitive advantage between the law breaking and law enforcement (the police) it is important that we look at the technology landscape as a whole and not just the bits that excite public interest.

The use of Facebook and Twitter by individuals to try to gather and mobilise a mob is not in doubt. However what has subsequently been demonstrated is the legal audit trail that these technologies leave behind that has been useful for the authorities pursuing successful prosecutions later. The fact that there have now been successful prosecutions (and exemplary prison sentences)  is likely to be far more effective in limiting future law breakers use of Facebook and Twitter than any technical measure. This has probably already done a large part of the job of containing the misuse of these new technologies.

There remains the issue of how all the messaging technology, including that venerable old messaging technology SMS, were used in real time to organise the hit and run tactics of the mobs. The police found this mob mobility particularly difficult to cope with. In a battlefield this tactical use of communications by the enemy would be dealt with by jamming radio signals in the vicinity. In civil terms it equates to the local mobile base stations being switched off during riots. Critics have argued that this is disproportionate as those innocent people in the affected areas are losing their means of communicating any difficulties that they might be in.  Certainly any loss of 999 voice call access from mobile phones would be very serious and could lay the authorities open to litigation if it were ever proved that somebody died as a result of those nearby being unable to call for medical assistance.

However blocking the networks is not the only technical measure that could be considered. Another possibility would be to get ISP’s  in riot areas to put a 15 minute delay in handling messaging services (which are  not designed as real-time services anyway). This would dull the tactical advantage of mobs to relocate in real time but leave everyone else free to use messaging for legitimate purposes.  Such a measure would be far more proportionate and worth study.

The Blackberry Messenger use by gangs for organising riots is a different issue. The dangers of encryption for lawbreaking is the inability of police intelligence to  have any idea of what crimes are in planning.   The use by the public of very high grade encryption of messages was debated in 1999 and a report published by the Labour Government called “Encryption and Law Enforcement”.  The Blair Government had the difficult task of balancing the risks to law enforcement with the needs of business and ecommerce. It all pre-dates electronic social networking and it is not easy to see how this liberalised encryption policy can now be reversed.

This leaves the role of television to be examined. What has been remarkable is the complete absence of any scrutiny of the “old” technology (television) in the public debate on the role of technology in the English Riots. Yet undoubtedly it was television that led to the copycat riots in other parts of London and in English cities hundreds of miles away. Arguably television news reporting of the initial riots crossed a line between reporting past events and driving future events. Put another way TV turned a £10m local disaster in Tottenham to a £200m disaster across England as a whole and strained police resources to almost breaking point.

There was one particular news clip sequence coming out of the Tottenham riots that warrants discussion. The images appeared to show a number of people looting a high street shop in relaxed almost party atmosphere whilst a line of riot police simply looked on. The juxtaposition of the animated looters and a passive line of police sent out a very simple message that everyone got instantly…rioting and looting was now OK…you are free to damage and steal on the high street…and you will get away with it.  (It was also the clip sequence that probably did more damage to the public confidence in the police than all the other video news footage put together).

This news clip raises a number of questions: was the news clip itself overly inflammatory, did the endless repetition of the clip exaggerate the situation and did the lack of juxtaposition of video footage showing the police more actively arresting people at other locations lead to an unbalanced picture being presented?  The answer is probably yes to all of these questions to a greater or lesser extent.

What is now evident is that the old media (TV) role in large scale public disturbances is to propagate “the trigger” over large distances. It is akin to the role of a high wind in turning small local forest fires into major conflagrations affecting thousands of square miles. The same mechanism was evident in the Arab Spring in transmitting street protests from Tunisia to Egypt.

This leads onto the question of what can (or should) be done about it? Pleas for more responsible TV journalism is a waste of time. That genie escaped the bottle decades ago. We now have competitive 24 hour news channels fighting to gain our attention minute by minute.  Their mission is to make things more interesting and capture our imaginations. It is not a natural thing to ask highly motivated professional people to do a less effective job.

This brings us to highly sensitive issue of censorship. Free speech and a free society requires a robust defence against censorship. It is why most people have  instinctively shied away from challenging the role TV has played in fanning the public disorders – the cure looks more unpalatable than the disease.  We are left only with a hope that Broadcasters might make more of an effort to balance their real time reporting…but we should not hold our breath.

Technology advances seldom deliver a 100% up-side. Trying to get the balance between discouraging the darker uses and maximising the public benefit can be every bit as complex as the technologies themselves.  The up-side of Facebook and Twitter was well demonstrated after the riots in the coming together of communities in the clearing-up after the riots. Television also played a positive role. Nothing could demonstrate the enormous constructive power of a 30 second video clip on national TV news than the words of Tariq Jahan broadcast from outside his home the night his son and two friends were murdered. It stopped an appalling situation of criminality from degenerating into a full scale race riot.


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