Posted September 16, 2011 7:29 am by with 2 comments

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British MPs (Members of Parliament) have been questioning officials from BlackBerry, Facebook and Twitter regarding the role of social media in both enabling and fueling four nights of riots that occurred in London in August.

It already feels like those riots, in which 5 people were killed and many London shops were looted and damaged happened much longer ago than August 6th. In an attempt to determine just what role social media played in these events, the British Parliament is raising many questions regarding social media and social unrest.

Yahoo News reports

The makers of BlackBerry admitted Thursday social media could be used for “malicious purposes” but the vast majority of users were law-abiding, during a grilling by British lawmakers on August’s riots.

Stephen Bates, managing director of Research in Motion in Britain and Ireland, insisted that social media was generally a “force for good”, a position backed by executives from Facebook and Twitter during the hearing in London.

“There’s no dispute that… social media was used for malicious purposes,” Bates told parliament’s home affairs committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the four nights of unprecedented riots in English cities.

The association with this tragic event is a rare time of using BlackBerry and social media in the same sentence. The BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) service was at the center of the communication network used by the rioters who tended to be of a lower socio-economic group which uses the inexpensive service as their primary way to connect with each other. Of course, this is not exactly the way any brand likes to see their name connected to what’s considered hot by many people around the world.

Blackberry was not alone, however, in these hearings though as representatives from Facebook and Twitter were questioned as well.

The committee also quizzed Richard Allan, the director of policy for Facebook, and Alexander Macgillivray, general counsel responsible for public policy at Twitter, who flew in from California for the hearing.

Both Allan and Macgillivray meanwhile told MPs that Facebook and Twitter were too open to be of much use to criminals, and said they had found little evidence that they played a part in encouraging the rioters.

“We have not found, because our service is such a public service, that it’s a particularly good tool for organising illegal activity,” Macgillivray said of Twitter.

Maybe someone needs to remind Mr. Macgillivray that Twitter’s direct message function is available to use for one to one communication that is considered private but I digress.

BlackBerry’s parent Research in Motion has received some pressure about their turning over of communications to police regarding the riots. This is a truly a case of being caught between a social media rock and a hard place because no one will be pleased completely whether the company refused to turn over the information to the authorities or not.

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In the end, this will likely be a common scenario that social media outlets will face. The hope is, of course, that they might be connected to more “positive” disruption like the Egyptian revolution from earlier this year (although not all news regarding that uprising was positive by a long shot). The unfortunate fact of this kind of social unrest is that regardless of the “purpose” of a riot or uprising, people often are killed or injured. It’s hard to put a positive spin on this result and social media will likely play a role in any of these events moving forward. It can’t be avoided.

So what is your take on this kind inspection of social media when used for these kinds of events? Is it the responsibility of the social media outlet to police these things themselves? Is holding them legally responsible for the results of these uprisings the right way to go?

  • This is like blaming the hammer for hitting your thumb. It’s not the tool which was at fault, it was the person using it.

    Social media has no morals. It is driven by people, and their moral compasses determine whether their Blackberrys, Twitter or Facebook is used for good purposes or for bad.

    I wonder if A. G. Bell and T. Edison were called in front of Congress when telephones first came into popular use. Certainly those devices were used for less-than-honorable intentions when they first came out. That might be an interesting study. “Mr. Bell, will you please explain to use why you didn’t put in adequate safeguards to ensure your device could not be used to plan a crime … “

  • In fact this is new concern for governments, social media can be a dangerious tool as we saw in last UK riots. But also have advantages, like real online news fromcountries where no democracy allow the media to be in. Nother africa regimes also have been lastly complainst but using social networks like facebook.