Is this the dark side of social media?

OPINION: While the world followed the riots on Twitter, questions asked about BlackBerry Messenger's role in coordinating riots
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Like many others across the country, my attention last night flitted from the coverage of the London riots on TV, to social networking portals where it was the only topic on the menu.

As a news source Twitter is of course sketchy at best – at one point a faked picture of tanks and soldiers assembling in a London street circulated, managing to fool more than a few.

But social media did provide an instantaneous and very wide picture of what was going on the front lines, as well as reactions from anyone you cared to follow.

Elsewhere on the Twitter-scape, looters uploaded pictures of themselves with stolen flatscreen TVs.

Just as people rejoiced at services like Twitter and Facebook during the Egypt uprising as a liberating force in what most saw as positive social movements, many have noticed the use of Blackberry Messenger and Twitter by rioters looking to coordinate violence and mass theft across the nation.

It’s been pointed out that riots and general civil unrest in the past usually spread by word of mouth. Thanks to modern technology the range of such methods is no longer restricted to local communities or even national borders – it is global.

Following reports that large numbers of rioters were using RIM’s Blackberry Messenger to coordinate attacks, rumours began circulating yesterday that the firm would shut the service down in the capital.

It has denied this since, but has said: "As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials. Similar to other technology providers in the UK we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces."

It remains to be seen whether this will simply mean passing on any potential incriminating data that comes its way to an eventual investigation, or if it will extend to real time monitoring of suspects accounts to try and curb more violence. The latter of course would be trickier.

And privacy laws and individual agreements with service providers could well reign in any lightening response in this fashion.

No one could reasonably blame RIM or any other social media service if their products are being used in nefarious ways – but once the dust settles on the riots, lawmakers in this country might well be looking for more effective ways to monitor and effect these services if they are proved to have such an inherent involvement in some of the most dramatic scenes the UK has witnessed since the Brixton riots thirty years ago.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph.

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