BlackBerry Messenger's Role in London Riots Is Scrutinized

Twitter defenders point the finger at BlackBerry Messenger for aiding mayhem

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Twitter and Facebook may have enjoyed gushing praise for its roles in catalyzing revolutions across the Middle East, but another social network is emerging as a conduit for mayehm in this weekend's riots in London on Saturday night and Sunday evening: BlackBerry Messenger, known better to thumb-typers as BBM.

Over the weekend the Daily Mail's Ian Gallagher and Steven Farrell blamed the pandemonium on Twitter, citing a retweeted picture of burning police car as the fuel that flamed the violence. "As the rioting escalated, trouble-makers on Twitter seemed keen to orchestrate the violence, bringing scores more people into the area. One user calling himself 'English Frank' urged attacks on the police, saying: 'Everyone up and roll to Tottenham f*** the 50 [police]. I hope 1 dead tonight,'" added Gallagher and Farrell.

Looking into Twitter's role, Neal Mann, a Freelance Journalist for Sky News, tried locating the originating Tweets on his Twitter account @fieldproducer, with no success. "Still waiting to see any hard evidence that looters used Twitter to organise, haven't seen a single tweet. Surely not all locked accounts..." Eventually, he found Tweets indicating more happened on BBM than Twitter. "Tweeted at 10am Sunday --> RT @OhioV1 So there has been a bbm broadcast sent around telling people to link up at Enfield Town Station @ 4pm." And, he also found what he believes is an organizing BBM message.

On his blog Urban Mashup, social media strategist Jonathan Akwue made a longer case for why BBM played a bigger role in organizing looters:

Well, it appears that BBM messages have been circulating since Thursday’s shooting of Duggan by the police. These have fuelled the anger of the youths that have taken to the streets. BBM was also the channel used to spread the word that the riot had started, and from what I can tell on Twitter, it appears to be the means by which communications continue to be shared. 

Unlike Twitter or Facebook, BBM is much more private. Only BlackBerry users can message with each other, explains The Telegraph's Mathew Holehouser. "Crucially, in order to communicate users have to exchange their phones’ PINs, meaning their messages are private--unlike Twitter or Facebook. Conversations can be held between multiple people simultaneously in 'group chat' sessions." Given the barriers to reading and following a BBM conversation, it presents a useful organizational tool for those planning an event like this. "I am not a security intelligence expert so I don’t know the extent to which the police are able to monitor the BBM network, but Canadian police officers have previously complained that criminals prefer using Blackberry Messenger because it is harder to wiretap," explains Urban Mashup.

And unlike in the U.S., BlackBerrys remain more popular in the U.K. than iPhones or Andriods, reports TechCrunch's Matt Butcher. "Using BlackBerry handsets--the smartphone of choice for the majority (37%) of British teens, according to last week's Ofcom study," adds The Guardian's Josh Halliday. The phone costs less than other smart phones, and BBM is basically free to users and faster than text messaging, making it an attractive mobile device for London's youth.

While there may have been planning via BBM, other aspects of the event seeped out through other social networks like Facebook and Twitter. It proved especially helpful as a way for journalists and onlookers to follow the news, explains Holhouse. "A BBC crew were attacked while delivering a live broadcast, forcing the channel and Sky News to withdraw their satellite trucks. In their absence, many turned to Twitter for a stream of eyewitness reports and photographs posted by local residents." And following the death of Mark Duggan, whose murder acted as the catalyst for the event, people flocked to Facebook to commemorate his passing. The page now has more than 8,500 fans.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.