Twitter has come under a great deal of criticism for its role in mobilising riots across London, which started in Tottenham, but spread to Enfield, Walthamstow, Waltham Forest, and Brixton over the weekend.
The Daily Mail was particularly quick to blame Twitter for helping to orchestrate the rioting and for spreading triumphal images from the rioters themselves. One picture of a burning police car was retweeted over 100 times and the Mail reported that the ‘troublemakers’ on Twitter were encouraging ‘scores more people into the area'. The Daily Telegraph similarly explained that Twitter and mobile internet access had helped teenage gang members to "incite and film the looting and violence".
Like the press, the Metropolitan Police have also been quick to take issue with Twitter and other social media. Commander Adrian Hanstock, who is launching Operation Withern concerned with the Tottenham disorder, commented, "We are aware of various reports on social media networks of further disorder being planned. Any intelligence will be assessed and actioned". Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Kavanagh said on Radio 4 that Twitter contributed to the riots, saying: "Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality."
But Twitter needs to be put in the perspective of other media technology and in the history of rioting in London. Speed Communications managing director, Stephen Waddington, defended Twitter's role: "Twitter is being used to exchange messages in the way that previous generations used technology such as phone, email and SMS. To claim that Twitter had a role in the Tottenham riots is as credible as placing the blame at the hands of mobile phone handset manufacturers or mobile operators."
A search on Twitter for tags containing “BBM” reveals the extent to which the organisational loop has been created on the Blackberry network. BlackBerrys provide internet access, but cost less than iPhones, typically the choice of Twitter users. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, they offer the exchange of secret messages between users, so are more challenging for the media to report.
There were large scale riots in the summer in London at times of social unease long before the advent of social media. As Sara Luker, a senior reporter at PR Week commented, "Every time there's an incident now Twitter is blamed. It was even blamed for the downfall of the News of the World, which was very tenuous. Of course, the riots would have started in any case". Luker puts the heavy criticism of Twitter down to newspapers being slow off the mark in covering the story over the weekend and now "playing catch up".