How technology fuelled Britain's first 21st century riot
Published 08/08/2011 | 07:43
The Tottenham riots were orchestrated by teenage gang members who used the latest mobile phone technology to incite and film the looting and violence.
The disorder was captured second-by-second on Twitter with rioters so caught up in the frenzy of destruction they thought nothing of posting incriminating pictures of themselves stealing from ransacked shops.
Gang members used Blackberry smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying executives to organise the mayhem.
The Blackberry phone, one of the first devices to offer mobile email, was once the preserve of business leaders and political aides but has become increasingly popular with members of urban gangs and teenagers.
This is largely due to the Blackberry Messenger service – known popularly as BBM – which allows owners of the devices to communicate with each other for free and almost instantaneously.
Crucially, in order to communicate users have to exchange their phones’ PINs, meaning their messages are private - unlike Twitter or Facebook. Conversations can be held between multiple people simultaneously in ‘group chat’ sessions.
Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the disturbances, used Blackberry Messenger to send his last message to his girlfriend, Semone Wilson, 29, writing: “The Feds are following me."
In Tottenham, its popularity is such that news of Duggan’s shooting – and the rumours about whether he fired on police first - were spread by Blackberry.
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.”
Three hours later, he wrote: “Standing here amongst burning barricades. Beautiful.”
Bwoywonder wrote: "Tottenham yutes on roofs of towerblocks dashing stones trying to bring down a police copter. Determination."
On Saturday night, rioters and spectators filmed the mayhem using mobile phones and camcorders and quickly posted the footage on Youtube.
Some looters photographed each other in front of wrecked and burning shops as “trophy” snaps.
A terrified woman who had become trapped in a shop on Tottenham High Road posted footage of dozens of riot officers charging from their line of vans towards flaming barricades.
Another grainy film shows hooded youths watch the Tottenham branch of Carpetright go up in flames, while a third shows a jewellery shop being torched.
Throughout the night, Twitter was flooded with street-slang-filled accounts of the riot.
As the orgy of violence reached a crescendo, a BBC crew were attacked while delivering a live broadcast, forcing the channel and Sky News to withdraw their satellite trucks. In their absence, many turned to Twitter for a stream of eyewitness reports and photographs posted by local residents.
Then, as the clean-up began, pictures of looters started to appear on Twitter, some clutching what they had managed to steal. One showed three people outside a shuttered shop, two clutching H & M bags.
Another showed a man wheeling a shopping trolley packed with alcohol, while a third showed the proud owner of a new television and two boxes of electrical goods.
A passing motorist early on Sunday morning filmed hooded men fleeing branches of H & M and JD Sport in Wood Green carrying items they had looted while the shops’ alarms sounded.