Will social media be a victim of the London riots?

London Riots, Croydon

London's burning: dousing the flames in Croydon (image: George Rex)

That social media was used by the rioters in London shouldn’t really be a surprise.

It’s a mainstream communications tool, so it’s used by those wanting to communicate – whatever their aims.

What was a surprise was the idea of a social media ban, as suggested to Parliament by the Conservative Prime Minister on Thursday as the horrifying five days of rioting and looting in London and other UK cities began to subside.

“Steps were being considered,” David Cameron told the House of Commons, “to ban those suspected of planning criminal acts from using social media.”

As talk of social media bans hit the news channels it added a surreal twist to the recent grim events, not least because of the practicalities implementing such a ban and how it might affect law-abiding users of social networks.

For The Telegraph’s technology correspondent Christopher Williams the plans, though feasible in theory, “raise myriad technical and legal issues“.

Blackberry’s encrypted Messenger service seems to have been foremost among them though, and attracted the ire of Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy.

Inevitably, Facebook and Twitter were co-opted too and Twitter was the focus of a lively debate on Sky News between Conservative MP Louise Mensch, former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott and Paul Lewis, a journalist at The Guardian.

This illuminated some interesting points – as well as the plan’s general lack of detail.

[Click here if you can’t view the above video]

In his striking account of covering the riots Paul Lewis explained that Twitter was the “first portal for communicating what we saw”.

“While journalists covering previous riots would chase ambulances to find the frontline, we followed what people on social media told us.”

Beyond the media there were also many positive examples of social media use, from hashtags such as riot cleanup and shop a looter, to Twitter users like Clean Tottenham, Riot Rebuild and Cleanup Riot.

But those were reactive examples. Twitter users responding after the fact to the riots.

More pressing uses of social media came from people wanting to avoid the trouble.

West of the A10 from Hackney to Islington and this account of following the riots – and such ‘hyper-local’ hashtags as #islington, #upper street and #angel – from Tim Scorer.

“What was apparent for me was that my requirement for  information morphed significantly with the proximity of the crisis,” he wrote. “Last night we sat at home 200 metres from a shop being looted. This tends to concentrates your requirement for up to date local information.”

All of which proves, I think, that social media tools are neither good nor bad, a judgement on that comes from how you use them. What is clear is that mainstream communications tools like social media are used in both good and bad ways.

But whether social networks in the UK will be subject to sterner forces than Twitter’s ‘fail whale’ remains to be seen.

[Click here if you can’t view the above time-lapse video of fires over North London]

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