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August 10, 2011

Social media and the Blackberry Riots

Shortly after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, an activist told CNN that “Facebook was responsible for the success of the Egyptian people’s uprising”. The revolution in Iran was attributed to Facebook, Tunisia to Wikileaks, Egypt to Twitter, and now in Britain, BlackBerry.

At the time of the toppling of the Egyptian government, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron called it a “precious moment of opportunity” to move towards “civilian and democratic rule”. But today it’s the Blackberry smartphones that have won out, with their semi-encrypted messaging system, sending England into revolt, with Cameron scuttling into position, calling it “sickening”.

In the political context, this breakdown of civil order is inescapably based on poor young people of England wanting to take their plight to the streets, to defy the deeply unpopular police force and to damage the property of the rich. In short, to “take back” what they feel has been stolen from them.

A mother whose store was attacked in London described the looters as “feral rats”; not quite the voice of reason that accompanied the Egyptian people’s release from repression. In a BBC interview, two girls, who had been drinking all night on stolen bottles of wine, said in “Showing the rich we do what we want”: “Everyone just wanted to riot so bad…It’s the government’s fault.” When asked why they were then targeting local people and businesses, the girls responded: “It’s the rich people…we want to show the rich people we can do what we want.”

In an Al Jazeera article, one pundit put it: “So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere…We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels…”

Mr Cameron, meanwhile denouncing the “mindless violence” of the looters, continues to support a “system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious,” as Al Jazeera put it. And when Cameron talked about preparing to stand up to the City to drive through reforms to break up Britain’s so-called casino banks, he failed, miserably.

However couched, even the best of us should have great difficulty in creating a credible link between global economics and inner-city rioting. As one looter in Clapham Junction, London, suggested, it’s not about the economy as such, he said, “I’m just getting my taxes back.” But as appealing as it is to dig out the root cause of it all, comments from the rioters have been incomprehensibly feeble, trite and vengeful.

And while writers of all political hues point the finger of blame towards “social media channels for inciting and spreading violence”, others believe it’s overarching police violence, racial conflict, ethnic tensions, social disadvantage and the failure of government to deliver appropriate services for the hopelessness of youth with nothing to look forward to, while still others blame the bankers and the politicians for an alleged theft they were left to service. No one, it seems, can make any real sense of what’s happened.

Just looking through some of the comments on Twitter for the hashtag #londonriots, some were enlightening. Lulu Rose thought: “The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″ Plasma TV.” While Aaron Peters thought: “Britons chose to be consumers over being citizens. This isn’t anarchy, this is the consumer society without the means.” More comically, Allison & Busby, writing for Waterstone’s bookstore, noted: “We’ll stay open. If they steal some books they might learn something,” while Declan Fay rallied with: “They’re blaming mobile phones for the #londonriots. Clearly they weren’t with Vodafone or the riots would’ve suddenly stopped after 1 minute.”

But these youths who are said to lack opportunity, some from their own making and inadequacy one must conclude, are angry at “the system” and have organised themselves using social media. But while the pro-democracy demonstrators of the “Arab Spring” marched in the hope of positive change and a better life, Britain’s violence has been positively narcissistic and nihilistic, focusing narrowly on arson and looting and are only too ready to cock a snook at the rich, by whatever means they feel able.

But whether this disenchantment is about today’s youth that don’t really care, the dynamics of social change is now powered by the rise of social media, a platform that allows immediate social organisation that governments are powerless to mitigate or regulate.

In the Maghreb, the riots were about escalating food prices, which turned into anger at the authorities. But in Britain, with its latent social problems, compounded by a perceived cover-up of a police shooting, is an altogether a different kind of revolution.

As John Bassett, a former senior official at the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, put it: “It does look as though social media is changing the balance of power between the state and the individual, whether that is manifested as regime change in Cairo or looting in Tottenham.”

In Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, countries that are suffering from a sovereign debt crisis, governments are struggling to placate market demands and delivering austerity. And in Britain and elsewhere, it’s been young people who have been at the vanguard of protest.

But if social media really is going to be the panacea to society’s feeling of loss and lack of future, the people using it should also offer a platform of hope and engagement rather than co-opting to fight bland consumerism and materialism for their own sakes.

Until that time, the politicians, the police and the rich should brace themselves for the onslaught of social unrest as the angry poor have discovered they can steal Blackberrys and organise anti-social events in great numbers.

In a bygone age, the English revolutionary would have been considered it most uncivilised to stage a riot, except of course at Lord’s cricket ground when an umpire declared “rain stop play”, followed by crustless cucumber and cress sandwiches being hurled at him in an undignified pique of rage.

To be taken seriously, Britain’s counter-culture of hedonistic impulses seem to have evolved into little more than a new set of dumb leisure pursuits that engage in social media as a means to satisfy a silent, dirigible “revolution” of dispossession. Yet as the second wave of recession arrived, Britain is being stifled once again by coordinated, counter-intuitive rebelliousness against those that meet the shaky criteria of solvency.

From the recent reports on Britain’s riots, it seems that the dispossessed aim to get what they want by burning and looting as some kind of parlour game. But just maybe the riots are really a token gesture against a growing police state and perceived institutionalised theft that is viewed as so objectionable.

The “rich” in this context, both political and economic, have once too often been found colluding with each other to get their paws in honey jar, then acquitting themselves and absolved of all wrongdoing, while at the same time having the cheek to demand that the poor finance and forgive the corruption of excess.

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V9 Design and Build (http://www.v9designbuild.com) produce web design services in Bangkok, Thailand, including eCommerce and social media.

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