Social Media Blackouts

In the UK, the question has recently arisen as to whether (or not) to shut off access to social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter during times of civil disorder.

The following is from a recent guardian article

“Should Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger be restricted or shut down in times of civil disorder? Do the police gather valuable information by allowing the services to stay up and running – or is it true that without them it would not be possible to plot violence on the scale seen this month?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/aug/24/uk-riots-social-media

An important point I should address is that this is only one option being explored,but it’s an option I’d like to examine a little further in this post “innit?!?!”.

My immediate (i.e. rough) thoughts on a social media blackout solution is  that it appears to be a short sighted solution which shows a lack of insight into how Internet technologies are and can be used. If Louise Mensch or any of the other apparent supporters of this idea wish to comment, I’d greatly appreciate the open discussion. I have been known to change my opinion based on solid, critical discussion.

The short version of my argument is this.

If you have people communicating/arranging “disturbances” over Facebook, Twitter, BBM, you know exactly where they are (logically at least)Privacy/Rights issues aside for a moment (and they’re very important), you can (eventually) track senders and recipients of such messages during and after the event as their communication leaves a permanent digital footprint. If you close down these networks during times of “crisis”, these people will almost certainly go elsewhere and that will be much much harder to track. You won’t solve the problem, you’ll electronically move it along somewhere else.

Here’s the longer version of the argument…

1. Are Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messaging the real cause of the spread of the riots?

Are we sure the continuous media coverage of endless video loops of rioting, radio rant-ins and front page outrage aren’t playing a bigger part?  Those channels have a far wider reach. Surely any rational approach would examine all of the causes and treat them equally?  Assuming old media (Papers, TV, Radio etc) played a more significant part, wouldn’t they be banned from publishing video/photo until after the event too?

Yes you could argue that Facebook/Twitter etc are being used as rabble rousing communication channels, but it’s arguably naïve to think switching them off will help. A more likely scenario is that such an action would just move those channels elsewhere (see #2 below).

Question : So did Facebook/Twitter/BBM play a major part in fueling riots?

Answer : Unlikely, but this should be criticaly analysed before jumping to any conclusions


2. You’ll need to cast a wider net

If you temporarily switch off access to Facebook and Twitter, do you not think people will work around it? I mean, it’s easy, and given time, people will work around it ready for the next batch of riots. Don’t underestimate the creativity of a disenfranchised society or “the criminal mind”.

Here are just 5 very simple ways people could do that, TODAY:

a. Old school talking in person or phone (I understand it still happens)
b. Email (Yep. it’s still around)
c. Use different social networks/approaches ( IRC, 4Chan, tumblr, blogs, heck even Bebo and Myspace )
d. CB radio and walkie-talkies (why not, good buddy What’s your 20?)
e. Use an internet proxy like Tor to route via a different country and still use Facebook and Twitter

Question : Will Facebook/Twitter/BBM blackouts (alone) have a significant (Practical not Statistical) impact on reducing future unrest?

Answer : Unlikely


3. If people are communicating electronically you know where they are and you can catch them

People communicating using social media are creating a signal (read Chatter). Twitter is largely made of public profiles and with white-listed access to the Twitter API, you can monitor *ALL* public Twitter traffic. Guess what? you can filter for keywords, target tweets from/to key individuals and use technologies like MetaCarta to translate location names to geographic coordinates.

In short, you can visually detect hot spots, peaks of activity and key players.

This gives you two options.
1. You can detect who was “involved” after the event and investigate further, should you wish.
2. You can easily create a dashboard to spot interesting activity in (very near) real time.

Both of these should be of keen interest to the police.

Quick aside: On BBC Question Time last week, one of the panel suggested that the police aren’t staffed to monitor social networks. Here’s the thing, you don’t have hundreds of staff monitoring it; you automate it, it’s not terribly difficult. It’s especially not terribly difficult if you’re a nation state. It’s not particularly difficult as a hobbyist either.

Here’s something which should help articulate just what is possible as a hobbyist


Just Landed – 36 Hours from blprnt on Vimeo.

BBM is more tricky, but here’s something, if you know where the riots were (after the event) and the criminals didn’t turn off their phones during the riots, then you can work with the phone companies to who was there. BTW, you’d really need to ban all texting.

Now this communication detection does not mean you can associate actual humans with an actual disturbance (the phone could have been borrowed or stolen), but it does mean you can follow up and add an extra dimension to your investigations.

If you shutdown these networks in a time of crisis, people will almost certainly find an alternate communication channels (see point #2) that the police will have no knowledge of and no ability to switch off without switching off access to the internet period.

Question : Will Facebook/Twitter/BBM blackouts push people elsewhere to arrange their riots?

Answer : Pretty likely.  The miners and football hooligans of the 80’s seemed to manage just fine


So here’s my proposal:

1. Get impartial and balanced advice from people with more expertise in security, social media and rioting than MP’s (unless, and it’s unlikely, they’re experts in those fields).  An independent social networking advisory panel perhaps? Oh…and openly publish the results without spin.

2. Weigh up shutting these networks down, versus having the ability to use them as a crime prevention and detection tool (Privacy/human rights issues aside for a moment…and yes, they deserve discussion).

3. Conduct a thorough analysis of the motivations and the communication channels used by the riots. Let’s not fall into the trap of making snap, unfounded decisions, especially when the very tools used by rioters can also be used against them so readily.

Final thoughts…

Social Media blackouts are one avenue, and may turn out to be the right avenue (I doubt it), but I find it amazing that no one is talking about using these tools to analyse the spread of the riots and who was involved.

Update.. The guardian did a piece today (25th Aug) : http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/24/riots-database-twitter-interaction – so someone’s thought of it

It seems a lot like a knee jerk reaction, but at least blaming social media neatly sidesteps the real issue of what’s happening in society to make people so very angry.