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Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger cited as fueling London riots [Updated]

August 8, 2011 |  6:04 pm

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Police in Britain are examining what role social networking sites such as Twitter may have had in two nights of rioting in Tottenham section of North London that left 29 injured and 55 arrested.

On Monday, rioting continued for a third day, having spread to Hackney in North London and to Birmingham, England's second-largest city, pushing the number of people arrested past 200 and leaving 35 officers injured.

"The police are ahead of the curve in information technology and would have experience of the use of social networking sites by troublemakers," Steve O'Connell, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority that oversees London's Metropolitan Police Service, told Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. "The bad guys were using these sites to target areas quickly. Small bands of ne'er-do-wells were descending on high-quality stores to loot."

Police consider the riots to be the worst mob violence in London in the last 25 years. The violent unrest started after an Aug. 6 march in Tottenham protesting the death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, who had been killed in a firefight with police.

Buildings and cars were looted and set on fire, and several families were left homeless.

O'Connell told Bloomberg Businessweek that some of those who agitated the protesters, leading to the clashes with police and the ensuing riot, may have used Twitter and mobile phones that could enable police to track them down.

"My expectation is that the police, like all of us, can access Twitter," he told the magazine. "I would expect the Met to use every technology available to get it sorted out, make the arrests, and bring peace back to our neighborhoods."

[Updated 6:09 p.m.: Paul Lewis, a reporter for The Guardian in England, wrote in a blog post that he and his collegues have found that Research In Motion's BlackBerry Messenger, a text message service that only works between BlackBerry smartphones, is being used as a tool to organize the London riots.

"In order to report more effectively the disturbances around London, I have been sourcing Blackberry Messenger broadcasts, which have been useful in providing real-time updates and predictions about future incidents," Lewis said. "As the Guardian has been reporting, it's clear that much of the unrest is being organised using BBM, which is a PIN-protected instant message system that is only accessible if you use a BlackBerry."

Lewis said in his blog post that the news outlet has made the choice "not to publish 'live' messages that appear to anticipate violence," but the Guardian has published some BBM messages after rioting has taken place "to show how events have developed."]

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Photo: Riot police deploy in North London's Hackney section Monday. Credit: Kreim Okten / EPA

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