"Absolute explosion" — How BlackBerry BBM fed the riots, says contact

With riots and looting breaking out all over London earlier this week, media outlets have been poring over how the violence spread. We were amongst the first to identify the BlackBerry mobile handset and its unique, private Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) as a method whereby rioters and looters, many of them teenagers, broadcast and swapped information in a way that effectively crowd-sourced the riots. Today, in 2011, the BlackBerry is by far the most popular handset amongst Britain youth.

While it was not the only culprit, the BlackBerry BBM service lay at the core of how word of the riots spread. The Guardian also found plenty of evidence of BlackBerrys being used to “organise” the violence. So what role has BlackBerry BBM played in the violence?

I met up with a contact, who we will call Paul. Paul grew up in North London, amongst the kinds of people involved in the riots, though he himself was not involved. But he remains intimately connected with his community.

He told me about the mobile culture amongst London’s urban youth and how obsessed it is with the BlackBerry. The recorded interview is also available below.

I asked him if, over the weekend, he saw a lot of BBM chatter from his contacts? In a word, yes.

“It was an absolute explosion. None of my people are involved in the riots but they know people here and there and the BBMs were blowing up my battery!”

He said the Social Feeds feature on more modern BlackBerrys allows you to tie in many feeds such as BBM, Twitter and even RSS.

“I don’t think I would have known anyone would have let go of their BlackBerry for a second. You always have a message to respond to, but now you have to watch statuses to check to make sure your friends and family are alright.”

Other Apps are being used like WhatsApp because it runs across other handsets. But according to Paul “it’s not as good [as BBM], it’s slower, not as reliable” but people use it because it’s free and has a “huge” user base, and it has a broadcast feature, at least on the BlackBerry version.

His friends tend to always have a BlackBerry, but “I would say say out of a group of ten friends at least four people will have an iPhone and a BlackBerry.” The reason? “The lure of the apps and the lure of the iPhone is what brings people to the iPhone.” But of course, BBM remains the key application.

Indeed, the use of Blackberry in the riots was so prevalent that David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots were amongst the worst, even called on RIM to suspend BlackBerry Messenger services while the riots were on. And I’ll admit, late at night watching buildings burning, I even hastily tweeted myself that something should be done about the BBM system. I guess, watching my city descend into chaos, I was upset and concerned that the Police were unaware of how BBM was being used by some rioters and looters.

I subsequently retracted this, knowing full well that this would be a whole disproportionate response, but not before the Daily Mail newspaper decided to use my Tweet in a sensationalist headline. Of course, shutting down BBM would have done little to avert the crisis and the rioters would have simply switched to other mobile apps – even plain old voice calls – and innocent people using BBM to warn or check on loved ones would have been affected.

But there is no denying that the BlackBerry / BBM combination is an extremely powerful one if it is fashioned into ‘ant-social’ media.

The fact is that some 37 percent of British teens have a BlackBerry handset according to Ofcom. Our non-scientific research puts that at about 90% amongst London’s urban 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 June 2011, according to GfK Retail, RIM was the number one smartphone vendor in the UK with the BlackBerry Curve 8520 the best-selling prepay phone in the UK. BlackBerry handsets can be bought on family plans where the second phone is free, effectively spreading the handset’s use.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is a free instant messaging service that lets you message one-to-one or broadcast one-to-many. Indeed, your broadcasts can be forwarded on to hundreds of people within a minute, making it what a new kind of Gutenburg Press. Because just as that invention set off an explosion of books, BBM, a free, fast and secure method of publication, appears now to be capable of creating an explosion of dark-hearted flash mobs. In the last few days this became “anti-social media” in the raw.

For instance, a BBM broadcast sent on Sunday and shown to the Guardian was widely circulated beyond its original sender and called for people to vandalize shops in the West End and attack the police.

It read:

“Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”.

While Facebook and Twitter helped power the uprisings in the Middle East, BBM provided an incredibly powerful version of messaging largely replacing SMS for BlackBerry users. Because not only can you message people (if you know their BBM PIN) messages are encrypted at the point of sending, making them hard for the authorities to decode subsequently. BBM is secure, private and able to broadcast to people beyond your own contacts. It just can’t be monitored like Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, the service itself is agnostic as to its use. But it’s secure, private nature has added that frisson of organisational capability to anyone that wants to put it to nefarious ends.

Yes, one cannot blame the technology. The underlying causes of the riots and looting could be many. Boredom, unemployment, a bad economy, a consumerist culture that puts value in possessions – take your pick of underlying causes. In the north London borough of Haringey youth clubs were shut after the youth services budget was slashed by 75%. Gang experts, MPs and sector workers warned as recently as July 29 that the lack of youth services would feed a growing gang culture, which been described as “a community beyond the community”

Whatever the case, this community now has a powerful, enterprise grade, network.

BBM has acted as a way for urban youth to amplify their offline gatherings, which, depending on the motive, can turn into something far more potent when broadcast out to hundreds of others. Other methods – voice, SMS, simple face to face – are possible, but my research has shown that not much can beat a BBM Broadcast in London.

As with all social media, there is a mirror image side to the story which is positive. BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter and Facebook and other communications tools have all been used in the London Riots to help ordinary people avoid incidents and even clean up London, using the Twitter hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles and the enormously successful @riotcleanup.

But if we are to understand this new private social network on BBM we’ll need to know more about the culture around the phone.

So, what of the types of a BlackBerrys used?

Paul uses a 9800 Blackberry Torch, but he often sees the 9700 Bold 2, the 9000, or the BlackBerry Curve. In particular it is the Curve which has become the handset of choice. It’s affordable, cheap when second hand or, around his way, is often given new as a present.

Paul told me: “You see a few Androids and iPhones but the vast majority have BlackBerry as well, so they can stay ‘locked in’ to BBM.”

BBM is the key here. And in fact it’s probably what is keeping the beleaguered Research IN Motion, owner of BlackBerry, afloat.

BBM messaging, says Paul with great enthusiasm, is more intuitive than text – “you can have icons, and even send songs.”

Broadcast mode is particularly potent and can go incredibly viral. “I personally believe a lot of people don’t even read the broadcasts, the just forward them on.”

There’s evidence BBM’s facility to broadcast where rioters should go next was key.

But people don’t say “let’s all meet here” but something closer to “something’s going off” in this or that street, Paul told me.

“A couple of minutes later you will hear a couple of hundred people have turned up and shops are shutting.”

He says the messages can be interpreted two ways – one to warn people about something going on, but others may take it as a prompt to move to the area suggested, as in: “Everyone’s meeting up there so let me go there.”

BBM, he says, is a lot better than SMS because you can see if someone has read the message. It’s more reliable than others like WhatsApp.

This is a fascinating point. The fact that young people in London are using WhatsApp for group Messaging show that it’s not just BBM that will be at the forefront of this new emergence of private group messaging.

Paul told me how his friends also change their profile picture as a way of broadcasting what they are doing. He’s even seen pictures of someone running away from a shop with some loot as a profile picture.

“All this feeds in. Some make jokes, some say they are worried, but it’s more emotive than just text.”

The group chat feature is very powerful.

“There are so many levels to it. You can invite friends and they can even invite people who might not even have your PIN. You can share pictures, events for time and place… it’s all fluid and you can see everyone’s response in the same time,” he says.

So how did the looting and riots start?

Paul says there seemed to be two patterns. The first would be generated by a BBM broadcasts where someone creates a sort of self-fulfilling meme. Someone would broadcast a BBM that something might be “kicking off” in an area.

The other had much less to do with BBM messaging: an organised gang deciding via word of mouth to target a shop to rob, organising it with throwaway phones and getting out the word on BBM straight away, effectively using a riot as a smokescreen to cover their tracks, ‘pinging the kids’ to come down and create confusion for the police as they melt away into night.

Paul described how it works:

“A core group of guys who know each other quite well [will] have cheap, pay as you go phones they can easily throw away.”

This is a method normally used by drug gangs. Cheap phones are bought for as little as £5. “You meet up with your guys all the time anyway, so why wouldn’t you change numbers every couple of days?”

And at the heart of it, real “business” such as organising a hit on a shop, does not go onto anything traceable like a mobile phone.

“They make a few quick calls to people they are close to, get a crew of about 6 guys together, jump in a car, head to somewhere, attack a couple of shops where they know they can get cash and good money,” says Paul.

He says the media hype about people ransacking shops for trainers and sports ware like JD sports was just one side of the story.

A crew will do “mobile phones or jewellery or pawn shops. Then the message goes round that that place has been hit.”

He explained how there are many young kids who look up to the older guys – who are effectively gang members – and hang off their coat tails.

As soon as the teenagers get wind of a place that’s been robbed they turn up to see what happened and that’s when a new incident can potentially take place, especially in the current heated atmosphere.

It’s then that we in the public get to hear about the robbing of a sportswear shop, when in fact the core group, who never planned any attack on any social network, have their tracks covered by the hundreds of youths who turn up after the robbery.

As Paul says:

“The key guys that want to make money will go and do whatever they want to do to get cash and then messages will go out there. They may well send out messages saying ‘it’s kicking off’ in XY and Z, and then other people turn up and trash the place, like JD Sports. It’s low value items, but to kids and stuff – it’s what they want. Maybe computer games as well.”

Ultimately, the absolute core organisation of a hit on a place doesn’t go on any tech or mobile platform.

As Paul flatly says: “I don’t think anyone into dodgy business would put anything into writing that can be traced back. It doesn’t make sense. Just because you’re a criminal doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”

This is the point. The initial places to hit aren’t done on BBM. But it’s the first wave of social amplification of what they’ve done which goes out onto BBM.

Paul: “That’s what’s happening, yeah? People will say something on BBM [but] then express what they want to say publicly on Twitter.”

During the riots, the mainstream media initially fell upon the easy targets of Facebook and Twitter as the organising elements behind how the riots spread so quickly.

But these were only the most public, visible faces of expression.

And while Twitter traffic has soared during the rioting – it could be said that a large part of this was down to people wanting to know what was going on in realtime (sorry Google+).

Paul says the media’s view that the riots were “organised” on Twitter is wrong.

“Why would you organise something on an open platform? That doesn’t make sense. Just because it’s visible to you does’t mean that’s the way other people think,” he says.

By the time people are taking about an incident openly, he says, the information might be useful but it is unlikely to be key to how it started in the first place.

Commander Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, told Radio 4’s Today programme this week: “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality and we need to adapt and learn from what we are experiencing.”

But our contact’s evidence points to a more nuanced explanation. Yes, there might be “social noise” around a place – chatter on the BBM about where it’s “kicking off” – but then the chatter becomes part of making a real event out of the noise, and is amplified again on a public network like Twitter. But by the time it’s on Twitter something is already happening.

Whatever the case, the Police are sending in the big guns. Research in Motion, the company that owns BlackBerry has since agreed to work closely with the Police.

The first UK BlackBerry statement on Monday was: “We feel for those impacted by the riots. … We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

What is most likely to happen is that controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) is bound to be brought into action in the wake of the riots.

RIPA is extremely wide ranging and effectively allows the police to force a mobile provider to hand over message data.

Combined with traffic analysis, message sources, the devices linked to those messages and geo-location data gathered from network operators, then linking it with CCTV footage, Police could potentially work out who was where and when during the riots.

Furthermore, Section 54 of RIPA says network operators are not able to make it public that they’ve responded to a request or handed over any data, under penalty of going to jail – so you won’t be hearing about it in the media.

It was the implication that innocent BlackBerry users might get caught up in the Police dragnet that lead the hacker group “Teampoison” to attack RIM’s UK site.

It’s clear also that the authorities are now aware they will have to get to grips with the role technology has played in generating the riots.

This week Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London for policing and chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said: “The new phenomena in policing, from an intelligence point of view, is social media and the Met albeit two or three years ago might have been a bit slow to catch on, they are now all over it.”

Well, they have a Twitter feed, @metpoliceuk, with 34,000 followers (London has a population of 10 million). And the feed so far has not done any ‘normal’ Twitter engagement like answering questions, it is broadcast only.

Meanwhile, other Police forces have cottoned on to the power of engaging with BlackBerry users. Due the to popularity of BlackBerry there, Dubai Police have issued a special BlackBerry PIN in an attempt to catch up with how messages are spread, allotting a special pin number so that BlackBerry users can get awareness messages.

But the harsh reality in London is that the Met has a single Twitter account. Does it have a BlackBerry PIN number it can broadcast from? Not yet.

And with such encryption at the device level, will the Met have to resort to other, much older, policing techniques, like finding informants on the BBM network, or even paying for information?

A Twitter account will not be enough.

And if Paul’s testimony is anything to go by, BlackBerry BBM is where the action is.

Part 1 Interview about mobile use in #LondonRiots by mikebutcher

Part 2 Interview about mobile use in #LondonRiots by mikebutcher

Part 3 Interview about mobile use in #LondonRiots by mikebutcher