London awoke today to more smashed and burned streets after a third night of violence. As looters took to the streets of Hackney, Peckham and Croydon, services such as Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and even the PlayStation Network were once again in the spotlight, with a rumour spreading across social networks that BlackBerry Messenger would be shut down.
Through a combination of Chinese whispers and the social media echo chamber, folks watching at home began to spread the rumour that BlackBerry Messenger would be turned off between 7pm and 6am.
That tactic sounds familiar. Oh that's right, the dictatorship in Egypt did it, turning off phone networks and Internet access to stop protestors co-ordinating during the Arab Spring revolutions. Many Twitter users also called for the use of rubber bullets and water cannon, and even martial law as the mindless violence continued.
Before yesterday's trouble flared, the UK BlackBerry account tweeted, "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." However, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has confirmed this is only a rumour.
BlackBerry Messenging has been described as a "shadow social network", but RIM has pointed out that, "As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we co-operate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials.
"Similar to other technology providers in the UK we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces." That legislation allows police to access private messages if they are related to the commission of a crime.
Dog and bone
If BBM is a "shadow social network", then so are text messages and email. Some Tweeters revealed that young people were discussing the riots over the PlayStation Network.
Heck, Cockney rhyming slang began as a way of talking without police being able to understand what was being discussed -- if we turn off BBM should we also ban titfers and barnets and apples and pears?
As always, the tools of communication are just that, and we should be careful not to overstate their use. One of the great strengths of online and digital communication is also one of its biggest weaknesses: it's instant, which allows for bang up to date reporting of what's happening, and such positive uses as today's #riotcleanup hashtag. But it can also lead to people posting inflammatory or ill-informed messages without thinking them through or checking their source.
A spokesman for Mobile Youth, a think tank researching phone use among the young, told the BBC, "Once someone starts posting on a BBM group or Twitter, a lot of young people try to follow the trend... they might talk about it or use the same hashtag which makes it sound like there is a lot more volume."
So tweet responsibly, folks.
Have you received inflammatory messages on BBM, PSN or other social networks? Do you think authorities should have the right to turn off communications when trouble flares? Tell us your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.