London Riots: Blame Twitter -- or BlackBerry Messenger?

Rioters use BBM to organize, say observers.

August 8, 2011, 12:50 PM

Aug. 8, 2011 — -- As riots continue throughout London, British police have threatened to bring charges against those who use social media to incite looting and violence.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanaugh confirmed to U.K. media that officers were looking at Twitter as they investigated the riots, which began after the police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in the Tottenham section of North London on Thursday.

But some observers have noted that the social media that has really helped "organize" the looting is not Twitter or even Facebook, so central to uprisings throughout the Arab world earlier this year. Many of the teenagers running through London's streets are communicating by BlackBerry Messenger.

Just before Duggan died Thursday, he sent a final message to his girlfriend via BlackBerry Messenger, "The Feds are following me." Ever since, according to Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch Europe, "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."

Butcher notes that BlackBerrys cost less than smartphones and that BBM is both essentially cost-free and invisible to police. In order to communicate, BBM users must exchange PINs, but their conversations are private. They can spread their PINs via SMS, Twitter or other means.

BlackBerry made a specific effort to market its product among black youth in London, recently sponsoring a "secret gig" in London featuring top U.K. rappers.

Blogger Jonathan Akwue said he didn't quite understand the appeal of BlackBerrys among London teens until his "far cooler 17-year-old nephew" explained that BBM was "the main reason for their popularity." The rioters seem to be as young as the BBM users. More than 200 alleged rioters have been arrested so far, and two thirds of those for whom ages have been given are 21 or under.

Akwue was the first to note that BBM messages had been circulating since the Duggan shooting. "BBM was also the channel used to spread the word that the riot had started," wrote Akwue, "and from what I can tell on Twitter, it appears to be the means by which communications continue to be shared."Both Butcher and Akwue have archived reams of messages in which Londoners use Twitter to talk about BBM's role in the violence and looting, and even to offer to retweet BBM pins.

"Sending out BBM broadcasts about linking ukp at 4 pm to cause more havoc," writes one tweeter.Another says, ":o jd sports Tottenham hale just got robbed go on bbm to see da pics!" Another writes, "People had in their bbm status 'Going Tottenham riot, who's on it" like it was a casual street party. A fourth said, "According to my bbm, now something's starting in wood green."

Most telling perhaps are tweets that say, "BBM Where Ma News of Da Day Comes From" and "The news ain't even showing the extent of what's actually happening on the streets of tottenham? BBM is doing da ting right now!"

"Technology is ruining us," concludes tweeter Jessica Kennedy. "Bare man organizing riots over bbm."

Research in Motion, the manufacturer of BlackBerry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment by ABC News. RIM's Patrick Spence, managing director of global sales and regional marketing, issued a statement saying, "We feel for those impacted by this weekend's riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can. As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials."

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