Don’t Blame Social Media for Social Unrest

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Last week’s horrific London riots have been blamed on everything from solar flares to incredibly good design, but one contributing factor has been villainized above all others: social media.

The Daily Mail ran the headline, “Rioting thugs used Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store,” and police officials and members of parliament called for a suspension of BlackBerry Messenger service.

(MORE: U.K. Government Considers Blocking Twitter, BlackBerry in Wake of Riots)

But the riots seem to be the iceberg’s tip of social media unrest this week. In the U.S., Twitter-organized flash mobs have been descending on convenience stores and department stores, allowing dozens of congregating vandals to loot goods and then leave, shielded by the anonymity of a crowd. Such mobs have been reported in D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. In one case in April, a “gang incited” Twitter mob trashed Venice Beach shops and left a man shot.

Twitter also facilitated what was essentially a denial of service attack on the Compton Sheriff’s station phones on Friday. Rapper “The Game” tweeted the police station’s phone number to his 580,000 followers saying they should call to apply for a music industry internship. As a result, police phone lines were tied up for several hours, affecting 911 service. The rapper may now be facing charges.

(MORE: Rapper ‘The Game’ Scores Legal Trouble with Twitter Prank)

Back in the U.K., police are beginning to crack down. On Friday, Essex police arrested a man for sending a BBM text message encouraging people to take part in a mass water-gun fight. And two men from Cheshire have been sentenced to four years in jail for posting Facebook messages inciting rioting and looting. (Their pleas were unsuccessful.)

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament after the riots. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.”

And there’s the rub.

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