Tottenham Protesters Used Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger to Mobilize Riots

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Social networks like Twitter and Facebook were instrumental to organizing protests during the Arab Spring, which eventually led to the overthrow of oppressive regimes and the liberating of entire peoples. Their presence ostensibly set the stage for where the voices of the future will be heard, inundating the services-to-the-masses as real world tools with very real world applications.

But what happens when Twitter’s mass communication capabilities are utilized on the other end of the spectrum? What happens to the means if the ends aren’t as universally agreeable?

(MORE: London Riots: A Blast From The Past Or A Glimpse Of The Future?)

It’s an interesting question, and one that was recently posted by the violent riots in Tottenham, a borough in England with a history of run-ins with the law. According to a recent article in the Telegraph, rioters used private channels such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and public ones like Twitter in order to mobilize their efforts.

Though initially intended as a peaceful, 300-person vigil for the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, the events of last Thursday quickly escalated into vandalism, looting and violence that saw numerous vehicles and buildings set ablaze.

Though it’s still unclear as to what led to the shootout between the young man and police, the last message Duggan apparently sent to his girlfriend (through BBM, no less) read: “The Feds are following me.”

The Telegraph reports that gang members during the riots used BBM group chats—which requires the exchange of user pin numbers in order to function, thus privatizing the channel—in order to organize their efforts, which included the looting of stores like popular retail-chain H&M.

(PHOTOS: Riots in London)

As for Twitter? The Telegraph writes:

As the violence erupted, news of the disorder spread quickly on Twitter, with photos of burning police cars circulating before the BBC news channel began its coverage. It drew many participants from across London.

Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, a self-styled Marxist and blogger, wrote on Twitter: “I’m looking for someone to buddy up as a legal observer and head down to #Tottenham now.”

A quick scan of YouTube also reveals video after video of first-hand footage documenting the rioting and aftermath.

However, it’s also worth pointing out that technology is merely a means to an end, and should by no means be vilified.

Though it was reported that Twitter was used to proliferate private BBM channels to orchestrate the anarchy, the Guardian reports that there were several opposing messages sent via corollary channels, containing sentiments more civilly held.

Namely, calls for peace.

Chris Gayomali is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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