How Blackberry, not Twitter, fuelled the fire under London's riots

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Over the weekend parts of London descended into chaos as riots and looting spread after a protest organised around the yet unexplained shooting of a man by Police. Of course, there was huge amounts of chatter on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, with the latter coming under enormous amounts of criticism from the UK press for fuelling the fire. But while Twitter has largely been the venue of spectators to violence and is a handy public venue for journalists to observe, it would appear the non-public BlackBerry BBM messaging network has been the method of choice for organising it.

The background to the current riots are convoluted. In 1985 a notorious riot on the Broadwater Farm Estate after Cynthia Jarrett, an African Caribbean woman, died during a police search of her home, later saw a Policeman, PC Keith Blakelock killed. That lead to years of mistrust between Police and local communities, not helped by the fact that parts of North London, around Tottenham remain to this day areas of ongoing economic deprivation.

The latest incidents over the weekend appear to have been sparked after a peaceful protest outside Tottenham’s police station over the fatal shooting of local man Mark Duggan, killed during an alleged gunfight with police on Thursday, was reportedly hijacked by thugs and looters.

But while Twitter and Facebook became the venues for public protests around public spending cuts it is the affordable BlackBerry handset and its near free BlackBerry Messenger network where group chats take place, which appears to have fuelled these riots. To communicate, BBM users have to exchange their phones’ PINs, making their messages are private, but PINs can be spread by any means – including, of course, Twitter and other social networks – but also via (still non-public) SMS.

In addition, BlackBerrys are high functioning phones but can often cost less than smartphones like Androids or iPhones, which are typically the choice of Twitter users due to the wide range of client applications. And remember, Androids and iPhones don’t run the free BBM network, and no other group messaging app has yet taken hold in the UK. As a result BlackBerrys have become the weapon of choice of Britain’s disaffected youth. According to last week’s Ofcom study while the iPhone is more popular among 25-34 year old Brits, BlackBerry is favoured by as much as 37% of 16-24 year olds and 37% 12-15 year olds precisely because of the free BlackBerry messenger service.

In fact, Duggan used BlackBerry Messenger to send his last message to his girlfriend, writing: “The Feds are following me.”

As this smart post by Jonathan Akwue – who was amongst the first to raise the BBM connection – points out, BBM is fast, free and private. It’s also created a ‘shadow social network‘ which is invisible to Police snooping.

One could well infer that Blackberry itself has specifically targeted urban youth. Jay-z is its main celebrity spokesperson in the US. A ‘secret gig’ in Shoreditch Town Hall recently featured big names from the UK rap scene – the sponsor was Blackberry.

Thus, a simple search on Twitter for phrases associated with the riots and also containing “BBM” reveals just how much the organisational loop has been created on the Blackberry network.

So while Twitter has been the noisy bystander, appearing to jeer on the thugs and amplifying the news aroud events, it’s BBM where all the real action appears to be.

Here’s just a tiny selection:

UPDATE:

The Guardian newspaper has picked up on this story, finding further evidence that BBM is behind the organisation of these riots.

And Blackberry UK has since come out with this statement:

IN