UK riots and social media

Notes giving more background and references for our part of the panel on Social Media in Times of Crisis

Talk given at RightsCon Rio


Last summer, on 5 August 2011, a resident of Tottenham in London, Mark Duggan, was shot by the police, who may have suspected him of having a firearm. The full details of how and why he was shot have not yet been shared with the public.

At the time of his death, the police did not notify the family, and when the police were confronted with a protest on 7 August, a senior officer did not meet the demonstrators.

Tottenham was the scene of rioting in the 1980s, and tension between the community and the police has been common. In the early 80s, rioting had spread through a number of deprived communities, which featured large Afro-Caribbean populations. The combination of police insensitivity, and racism, and poverty had led to these disturbances.

In 2011, however, despite the similarities in Tottenham, the levels of tension with the police were in general lower, and the riots seemed to have a different character. The riots spread quickly, and were destructive of property, but also featured a lot of looting.

On 7 August: Battersea, Brixton, Bromley, Camden, Chingford Mount, Croydon, Ealing, East Ham, Hackney, Harrow, Lewisham, Peckham, Stratford, Waltham Forest, Woolwich and Woodgreen all had riots.

The following day, the riots spread to Birmingham,  Bristol, Gloucester, Gillingham and Nottingham. On 9 August, rioting took place in Leicester, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton in the Midlands and to Bury, Liverpool, Manchester, Rochdale, Salford, Wythenshawe, Sefton and Wirral in the north-west of England

The reaction of the communities to the rioting was very unsympathetic, and tended to blame the rioters as in some way feral.

The recession, and the lack of jobs especially among the young, clearly played a strong part. Criminalisation, lack of strong father figures, poor education and inter-generational unemployment were all taken as possible causes, alongside greed induced by capitalist advertising. Poor policing was also blamed, and some called for the use of water cannons.

Social media and the riots

The tools the rioters used to communicate were also blamed, particularly BlackBerry Messenger, as well as Facebook and Twitter. BlackBerry, interestingly, has a 37% share of the youth market in smart phones. This made their messaging product (which allows mass messaging) the tool of choice for many of the rioters.

Others shared events on Facebook, and even posted pictures of their looting. News of the riots spread through Twitter, although there is as far as I can ascertain little evidence that it was used as a serious organizing tool for the riots.

Twitter was certainly used to help clear up and create community protests against the rioting, through the hashtag #riotcleanup. On the policing side, these tools were used for identification and surveillance, which included handing over user communications data via legal requests under RIPA.

Something must be done: this is something …

Nevertheless, politics requires action when confronted with problems. Often this leads to a search for quick and easy answers. Thus politicians led the calls to shut down social media. The local politician David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, called for shut downs of BBM. He has been thoughtful about many Internet issues, including questions of copyright. He dismissed possible human rights objections.

… therefore, this must be done

By 11 August, David Cameron was joining the calls, and told Parliament that the government would:

“look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”

This launched a serious campaign response, including petitions from Access and the Open Rights Group: 3.5k signatures on our petition. We organized a joint letter, warning that caution was needed, and against knee-jerk legislation in the heated political situation of that summer.

The plans also attracted the praise of the Chinese government. The state newspaper the Global Times said:

The British Government’s wariness of the Internet and Blackberry Messenger – symbols of freedom of speech – is a forced reaction, which might upset the Western world. Meanwhile, the open discussion of containment of the Internet in Britain has given rise to a new opportunity for the whole world. Media in the US and Britain used to criticize developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain’s new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the Internet.

As for China, advocates of an unlimited development of the Internet should think twice about their original ideas.

On the Internet, there is no lack of posts and articles that incite public violence. They will cause tremendous damage once they are tweeted without control. At that time, all governments will have no other choice but to close down these websites and arrest those agitators.

In October, we wrote to William Hague, who was hosting an international conference on Cybercrime, and trying to promote human rights in that context. We wrote that:

“Earlier this year the Prime Minister suggested there should be more powers to block access to social media, a policy that drew praise from China and which the government swiftly backed away from. There are also plans for more pervasive powers to surveil and access people's personal information online.  The government now has an historic opportunity to support technologies that promote rather than undermine people's political and social empowerment.  We call for the UK government to seize this opportunity to reject censorship and surveillance that undermines people's rights to express themselves, organise or communicate freely. That is the only way to both enshrine the rights of citizens in the UK and to support these principles internationally.”

William Hague responded in January:

“The Prime Minister did not suggest that social networks should be closed down. The government has not and is not seeking any new powers in this area. We recognise the enormous benefits that social networking brings, not least in the valuable part it played in helping citizens avoid trouble spots and in galvanizing community clean up efforts. Social networking itself was not the root cause of the disturbances, but, as our courts have recognised, did offer an enhanced means of communication to some individuals’ intent on inciting or facilitating widespread criminal behaviour. In light of this our law enforcement agencies, the network providers and social media organisations are looking at ways they can enhance co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour, in accordance with, and in order to uphold UK law.”

Thus he denied that there was ever any call for shutdowns of networks. Nevertheless, that was how it was reported and explained to journalists in August 2011.


It is fair to say that the closure powers have dropped off the agenda. Was this because of campaigning? Was the international embarrassment the cause? Was it the impracticality of what they had suggested? Had they perhaps found that the data was in fact a great tool for prosecutions of those they believed had been rioting?

It is our belief that the conversations between the Home Office and platforms like RIM, Facebook and Twitter will have fed into the current debate in UK over new powers to acquire user data.

Although this episode hasn’t led to the clampdown some of us feared, there some clear lessons to be learnt.

Firstly, liberal democracies are not immune from intolerably broad clampdowns on the Internet and communications media. Political pressure can make communications very vulnerable, as an easy target. Network and media platforms are bound to follow laws, so can be made to change their behaviour, where lawbreakers cannot be compelled so easily.

Secondly, policy proposals – even as suggestions - play into the hands of repressive regimes. In democracies promoting human rights abroad, this may make the Foreign Office of your government your ally.

Thirdly, surveillance is a more practical and potentially less controversial technique than censorship. Intrusion can be targeted at people who are suspected, where censorship almost always targets the wrong people. Where censorship may not be acceptable, surveillance and intrusion may. In the case of these communications, leading to riots, the same data can either be restrained through censorship, or surveilled for law enforcement and prosecutions. Both approaches have dangers for ordinary and innocent citizens. In the UK, while the censorship proposals have been forgotten, the hunger to surveil and use communications data has not.