Can social media spread anarchy?

The UK has had a glimpse of what the total societal collapse looks like. The UK riots of August 2011 have struck me as an example of systemic failure of government and society at almost every level of organisation, as lawlessness and anarchy reigned supreme for a few nights. This is not the place to analyse the riots in any depth, looking at this from the outside one gets a sense that England is about to take a sharp lurch to the right as the usual suspects already begin to lay the blame of the riots on multiculturalism and liberalism. On the literal other hand, the left is struggling to understand whether the riots were good-old class uprising, or a response to mindless consumerism.

I just have a few comments of my own. It is true that when you leave people nothing to strive for, they will not feel part of society, so poverty and deprivation are a big cause for rioting. However, I have no sympathy for rioting and looting, as Pauline Pearce eloquently said, during the riots in Hackney, “Do it for a cause. If you’re fighting for a cause then fight for a fucking cause”. What we saw was a bunch of people after a flat screen TV and some trainers from JD Sports. There was also a complete disrespect for authority that has been the result of endemic erosion of social institutions, a nation that has eroded the concept of personal responsibility cannot expect nothing but faux entitlement. Moreover, the British tabloid obsession with paedophiles everywhere has left a generation that has never seen a male authority figure anywhere, as this excellent article in The Guardian makes clear. Finally, I think that it is very interesting that the riots did not spread to Scotland, a country that is clearly more to the left than England. Better social cohesion? Less racial tension? Dourness? Weather? In the end, I will use those wise words from Alfred in The Dark Knight, “some people just want to watch the world burn”.

However, I did want to touch a bit on some of the technology aspects of the riots. From the start, many journalists and analysts have been commenting that there is an interesting technological element to the riots, as it became clear that there was some sort of organisation to the mayhem. It has emerged that youths were using their BlackBerry devices to stay in touch and exchange police movements. BBs are popular in some demographics because of the BlackBerry Messenger, an encrypted instant messaging client that allows various devices to stay connected at the same time. The capability for mobs to stay connected and coordinated through technology and social media should never act as an indictment of the technology, but I am awaiting the first musings from Baroness Greenfield about how this is evidence that Facebook and Twitter are making our children more disrespectful. Talk of the use of technology to organise riots is a red herring, communication tools will be used to communicate, in this case the medium is not the message, it is simply the channel in which the message is passed through. Some technologies make this easier, BBM is one that seems to be practically tailor-made to organise massive events if everyone else has access to a BlackBerry. That does not mean that the government should try to have a crackdown on social media, as they have already said they will. What are they going to do, create a #hashtag police?

I do not expect some regulatory response to the above, although it has emerged that British authorities have been urging BlackBerry to try to shut down its BBM services in some of the affected areas, and there are reports that Research in Motion will cooperate with Scotland Yard in their investigations. This really is where things get interesting in my opinion. As soon as it seemed like RIM might help the police, their site was defaced by a hacker group calling itself TeaMp0isoN. This begs the question of whether the riots are in some way connected to the cyber-unrest that we have been seeing in recent months. In other words, are the London rioters involved with Anonymous?

This may seem like a bit of a silly question, but it is an important one. While I would not go as far as to link any hacktivist groups with the riots, it seems like there is some sympathy to what is going on in London coming from cyber-anarchist circles. For example, the AnonOps Communication blog posted a video of a police withdrawal from dozens of looters, seemingly in celebration. The comments were mixed however, some were congratulatory, but most seemed to be against the riots. Anonymous and the London rioters may share an age group, but they are very different, your average self-described Anon is usually middle class and highly educated, while the rioters were clearly poor and uneducated. In the wild, your average computer-enthusiast teen would be the natural prey of the hoodie. However, the threat to regulate social media has not gone unnoticed by hacktivists though, and they are not pleased.The government may end up uniting the two tribes.

While there does not seem to be a lot in common between hacktivists and rioters, there is growing pressure to move cyber-protests to the real world. There are some interesting hashtags developing: #twitterriots, #occupywallstreet (even #opFacebook , but it is less clear if this is legitimate). What seems clear is that there is hunger out there to channel the force of hacktivism into the streets. After all, in V for Vendetta Londoners turned out en masse to watch Parliament being destroyed.

Comments 5

  1. I like how your conclusion about the Guardian article is that it's the nations paedophile obsession that brought about a lack of male authority figures for kids, while the article is trying to pin this mostly on liberalism, with a good dash of wistful thinking about how it was better in the old days.

    I think you might have a point there. There's a bit of a discussion in the Netherlands about the idea that men should not be working with kids as they are a threat to their innocence and safety and how it leaves these kids with no role models. What's worse, boyish behaviour is automatically branded as "disruptive" by the female teachers and less tolerated, which doesn't help matters for boys with no role models, future or direction.

    They're already considered a nuisance before they're done something wrong and no effort is made to spin their behaviour into something positive. Is it any wonder that boys are more likely to drop out and hang on the streets?

  2. It may be true that the typical Anon had at least two yers of college and is middle class, and that the London rioters would quickly make mincemeat of him were he to wander into the wrong part of the city, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't in some way sympathize with them. A number of anarchists and hacktivists seem to think that poverty is a symptom of government and corporate oppression so almost any action short of cold-blooded murder of a bystander is justified because they're just lashing out against being oppressed.

    A rioter bashes in a cop's face? Good. The dirty pig deserved it. He was working for the man. He's one of the oppressors. The fact that he's not the one who gave a tax cut to the company that closed down a plant offering possible jobs for the looters bothers them not at all. It's guilt by association and violence by convenience. Quick, simple, and easy to whip up into a slogan. This is why the hacktivists can sympathize with the looters from afar while in person, they would avoid these people like the plague.

  3. I am finding the reactions to the riots quite fascinating. Apart from all articles that start talking about the riots and then state something like: "I just want to make it clear that this lawless behaviour is totally unacceptable!" or something along those lines.

    No one is really taking action, not to prevent future riots, but to cure social problems that were the cause of this. The riots are a symptom of deep underlying problems in English society.

    No one is doing anything and everyone is assuming that it is over. There will be more riots and the situation will probably get worse. Not because I want or don't want that but because the social predicaments in which people find themselves is not improving and will probably get worse.

    You act like this when you have nothing to lose and these people have nothing at all.

  4. Seems social media *did* spread anarchy – witness the spontaneous, leaderless appearance of dozens of people the morning after in Camden to clean up. These people showed all the characteristics of anarchy: peaceful, consensus decision-making, putting others first, giving mutual aid for the good of all. Oh, did you not mean that? Maybe you meant chaos? The two are rather different.

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