The ubiquity of the mobile phone has fundamentally changed the dynamics of public order incidences. The power of the citizen journalists is one dimension of a new paradigm that now exists. It changed the way the media covered events in London on the 7th of July 2005. However, that is not the only change. Communications networks are now being used to create a command and control environment in which rioters are being mobilised and directed.

Using communications networks to control how an event is developing is no longer the sole preserve of the law enforcement authorities and their colleagues in the wider emergency services. On the streets of London and in other cities in the United Kingdom, we have seen a new paradigm developing - the coordination of rioters by people using advanced forms of social networking systems.

This should not have come as a surprise. The evidence was plain to see during the student riots on London associated with the passage of the Bill to increase student fees. The rapid development of new applications for mobile phones, such as SUKEY, provided demonstrators with an ability to share information on the location of the police, challenging the police tactics employed at the time.

This kind of information exchange using social networking systems has also been seen in Mumbai in November 2008 as the terrorists used mobile phones to maintain their awareness of how the Indian police were responding to the attacks across the city. The attacks in Mumbai were arguably the first time terrorists used their own form of command and control network to out-manoeuvre the law enforcement and security authorities, using media feeds to change the focal point of their attack.  

In military circles this is often looked at through what is known as the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop. It is how military forces look at the battlefield and gain insight from intelligence sources concerning the intent of their adversaries. The concept is based upon observing the disposition of your enemy, orientating yourself with respect to his dispositions, deciding on what to do next and then acting.

Military doctrine says that if you stay inside the OODA loop of your adversaries you maintain the initiative on the battlefield. For those on the streets of London intent on violence their ability to master the OODA loop using mobile phone networks gave them the advantage over the police. They were operating inside the police's OODA loop and gaining the initiative.

To understand how this developed it is important to explore in a little more detail how events unfolded over the first three days of the protests and the role played by social networks in that period.

The events following the shooting of Mr Duggan in Tottenham on Thursday the 4th of August can be seen to have panned out in several quite distinct stages. In each of these the role played by social networking sites was slightly different.

In the initial aftermath of the shooting, and before the peaceful protest outside the police station at Tottenham on Saturday evening, there was a period when a number of rumours circulated about the way Mr Duggan was killed. The way these rumours developed is typical of a situation in which people feel anxious and uncertain. Rumours will always fill a vacuum as people seek to find an explanation for what happened.

The rumours, some of which will have been passed by SMS messaging and Twitter, would have also reflected the sentiment expressed in the Facebook page that was quickly published to commemorate the death of Mr Duggan. In the absence of information people's imaginations can quickly run away with themselves. Once the rumours start, if they are not quickly addressed, they can become twisted and distorted by those with a very different agenda - to incite violence on the streets of London.

Mr Duggan's family's immediate desire to know just how he died is understandable. The peaceful march to the police station at Tottenham was a measured response. They sought more information. Unfortunately, because of the way that authority for the investigation passes to the IPCC there clearly was a hiatus in the relationship with the family. It allowed the resentment felt by the people involved to reach a boiling point at which others, with malign intent could hijack the event and use it for a wider purpose, to create disorder on the streets of Tottenham. This started the second phase, local rioting in Tottenham.

During this second phase there is little evidence that Twitter or indeed any other social networking sites played any major role in galvanising the local outbreak of violence in Tottenham. Twitter is not a specifically good mechanism for inciting violence. It is a one-to-many form of communication that is not well suited to mass mobilisation.

Most of the posts on Twitter involved people expressing their concerns for what was happening around the neighbourhood.  This is a form of anxiety displacement that now uses social media sites. This is very different from the kind of phone call to a single friend or family member that happened in the past. The spread of anxiety is so much quicker these days as uncertain events unfold.

The few postings on Twitter that encouraged violence will have had little impact on the ground. Few people become involved in violence just because of the rash boasting of a few individuals. A coordinated response from a small group of already-established street gangs is however a very different matter, bringing them onto the streets is not so difficult.

During the Sunday it would appear the nature of the violence changed significantly. It was at this point that opportunists seeing the chance to spread the violence across London started to coordinate responses from street gangs and disaffected youths who were ready to be mobilised. The leaders of those groups, in a desire to show they could command the streets and gain some kudos, called out their gang members onto the streets. Once they seeded the initial violence others joined in the fray, spreading like a contagion. The melee, once started, was always going to be difficult to contain.

This more sophisticated coordination of the rioting that developed on Sunday used the technologies of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to incite groups of youths who were quickly summoned to the streets and told where to appear. Using established social networks the mobilisation call was issued. As media images further exacerbated the situation, creating the perception that the police were simply unable to cope with the speed events that were unfolding, it was inevitable that 'copy cat' events would spontaneously arise in other areas of the United Kingdom.

The key to managing these events is to become more proactive. For the police to regain the initiative once it has been lost requires that they get inside the OODA loop of those orchestrating the violence. To do this they must be able to access the networks that were being used to coordinate the violence.

It is often said in military circles, in the context of counter insurgency work, that it takes a network to defeat a network. The challenge for the police trying to restore public order whilst acting within the law is to do just that and seize the initiative back from the criminals.


Posted August 10 2011 by Phil. Comment by emailing: