Profile photo of John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

UK riots and a new digital divide

9. August 2011 – 11:26 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

Claims that social networking tools were used to co-ordinate the London riots, which have since spread to other cities including my former home town, Birmingham, point to a new digital divide: this divide is not about online and offline, but about a divide between the Twitterati, Facebook users and users of other platforms.

Following broad-brush claims that social networks have been used to co-ordinate the rioting and plundering, Twitter users have been quick to respond, pointing to Twitter campaigns to clean up the streets following the riots. They are right, but that isn’t the end of the matter.

It turns out that the riots were co-ordinated using Blackberry smart phones, which allow anonymous, encrypted, but social, communication. Blackberries? I tend to associate Blackberries with conservative business users but I was surprised to read a BBC article last week reporting that teenagers who own smart phones prefer them. While it may seem logical that they choose Blackberry devices because of the privacy and anonymity they offer, the article suggests that privacy is more of concern to older users.

Previous concerns about the digital divide seem a little simplistic now. Previously we thought in terms of a divide between online and offline, seeing the ultimate goal as getting the “final third” online. Doubters were confronted with research that deprived youngsters, especially from ethnic minorities, were more often online than one might expect. The logical conclusion was that public services need to engage more with the online generation, usually in the form of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Now we find that there is a whole generation we risk ignoring because of assumptions about which social media tools they use.

When I worked for Birmingham City Council, I spent some time on a project to help heal the wounds of the riots in Lozells and Handsworth in 2005. Then, the lessons learned were that false information spread by pirate radio stations inflamed the situation, reinforcing tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Encouragingly, yesterday there was a report of Sikhs and Muslims from the area standing together to fend off the looters.

Just as things are moving on there, communication habits have moved on too. Back then, pirate radio was a blind spot and monitoring established radio stations simply couldn’t give any tip-offs about the violence. Now, the blind spot is Blackberry devices and presumably a whole host of other communication channels.

So do local authorities need to start opening channels with young Blackberry users, as a Guardian journalist has done? I think in some cases they will have to, but will also have a difficult job in keeping a keen eye on the latest trends in communication.

It looks like digital just divided again.
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  1. 7 Responses to “UK riots and a new digital divide”

  2. By fraser on Aug 10, 2011

    Hmm, sounds like the marketing people at RIM are working overtime to me.

    They are a failing company:

  3. Profile photo of John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

    By John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH) on Aug 10, 2011

    I know they say “any publicity is good publicity”, but I think there’s a limit. It’s counterintuitive, but if you look at the BBC article, Blackberry devices are the most popular smart phones with the youth by a long way.

    I think there’s a lot more that’s counterintuitive about this phenomenon too: for example, you might assume that the Blackberry has caught on in this age group simply because of the privacy it offers, but I find that somehow hard to believe especially as the BBC article reports that youngsters are less concerned about privacy issues than older people.

    So misunderstood and counterintuitive — although this is only a small part of what’s going on in the UK at the moment, it fits in with the rest of the picture.

  4. Profile photo of Rolf Luehrs

    By Rolf Luehrs on Aug 10, 2011

    “Der Spiegel” reports that one third of young smartphone users in Britain prefer blackberry (ofcom study, no reference). Furthermore RIM announced to support the investigations of the police. It is however not clear how, since RIM always stated that they can’t decrypt chats or emails sent by their customers.,1518,779125,00.html

  5. By Elke Loeffler on Aug 19, 2011

    Hi Rolf,

    I am sure that there are sufficient jobless journalists of News of the World who will be able to help RIM hack into their customers’ messages if needed!

  6. By Hellmuth Broda on Aug 30, 2011

    Are our governments that only recently praised the role of social media in the Middle Eastern uprisings now taking lessons from those dictatorships that are trying to hold on to power by all means?

  7. By Dan Jellinek on Sep 6, 2011

    Here is another article on this topic – there is no byline but I can reveal that I wrote it :-)

    it adds a police funding angle as they try and track social media.

    As for the comments that considering shutting down BlackBerry networks under circumstances echo dictatorships, I think this is a very poorly considered and thin, superficial argument to make. While of course it is an extremely serious step to take in terms of potential limitations of free speech (and access to emergency services potentially) the rather important difference is motive, and accountability. In the UK or the US, the authorities are not taking such steps purely to hold onto power, and they will be accountable for any actions at the ballot box once the next election comes round. Neither is true in a dictatorship.

    So our politicians must judge whether any action is proportionate to uphold broader freedoms such as the need to combat looting, and if they overstep the mark, they will be held to account – we will all make sure of that.

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