Today, the BlackBerry is by far the most popular handset amongst Britain youth. With that say, the London riots and looting this week, BlackBerry mobile handset and its unique, private Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) played an important role — as the rioters and looters, many of them teenagers broadcast and swapped information in a way that effectively crowd-sourced the riots.
As the Guardian is reporting, “it’s clear that much of the unrest is being organised using BBM, which is a PIN-protected instant message system that is only accessible if you use a BlackBerry.”
We have been cautious not to publish “live” messages that appear to anticipate violence, but we have published a number of historical messages, to show how events have developed.
This one encouraged looting in Enfield, and another encouraged people to congregate in Oxford Circus.
Both related to events that went on to occur on Sunday night, and
give you an insight into how those involved in the disturbances are communicating.
We’re grateful for any BBM messages you can send us. You can message me in confidence. My BBM name is ‘Paul’. My PIN number is 22416EC1.
For instance, a BBM broadcast sent on Sunday and shown to the Guardian was widely circulated beyond its original sender and called for people to vandalize shops in the West End and attack the police. It read:
Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!.
While Facebook and Twitter helped power the uprisings in the Middle East, BBM provided an incredibly powerful version of messaging largely replacing SMS for BlackBerry users. Because not only can you message people (if you know their BBM PIN) messages are encrypted at the point of sending, making them hard for the authorities to decode subsequently. BBM is secure, private and able to broadcast to people beyond your own contacts. It just can’t be monitored like Facebook and Twitter.
Mike Butcher over at TechCrunch met the this Paul, who in turn told him about the mobile culture amongst London’s urban youth and how obsessed it is with the BlackBerry.
The recorded interview is embedded at the end of this post. Here’re some text version of the interview:
So, what of the types of a BlackBerrys used?
Paul uses a 9800 Blackberry Torch, but he often sees the 9700 Bold 2, the 9000, or the BlackBerry Curve. In particular it is the Curve which has become the handset of choice. It’s affordable, cheap when second hand or, around his way, is often given new as a present.
Paul: “You see a few Androids and iPhones but the vast majority have BlackBerry as well, so they can stay ‘locked in’ to BBM.”
BBM is the key here. And in fact it’s probably what is keeping the beleaguered Research IN Motion, owner of BlackBerry, afloat.
BBM messaging, says Paul with great enthusiasm, is more intuitive than text – “you can have icons, and even send songs.”
Broadcast mode is particularly potent and can go incredibly viral. “I personally believe a lot of people don’t even read the broadcasts, the just forward them on.”
There’s evidence BBM’s facility to broadcast where rioters should go next was key.
But people don’t say “let’s all meet here” but something closer to “something’s going off” in this or that street, Paul told me.
“A couple of minutes later you will hear a couple of hundred people have turned up and shops are shutting.”
He says the messages can be interpreted two ways – one to warn people about something going on, but others may take it as a prompt to move to the area suggested, as in: “Everyone’s meeting up there so let me go there.”
BBM, he says, is a lot better than SMS because you can see if someone has read the message. It’s more reliable than others like WhatsApp.
This is a fascinating point. The fact that young people in London are using WhatsApp for group Messaging show that it’s not just BBM that will be at the forefront of this new emergence of private group messaging.
Paul told me how his friends also change their profile picture as a way of broadcasting what they are doing. He’s even seen pictures of someone running away from a shop with some loot as a profile picture.
“All this feeds in. Some make jokes, some say they are worried, but it’s more emotive than just text.”
The group chat feature is very powerful.
“There are so many levels to it. You can invite friends and they can even invite people who might not even have your PIN. You can share pictures, events for time and place… it’s all fluid and you can see everyone’s response in the same time,” he says.
So how did the looting and riots start?
Paul says there seemed to be two patterns. The first would be generated by a BBM broadcasts where someone creates a sort of self-fulfilling meme. Someone would broadcast a BBM that something might be “kicking off” in an area.
The other had much less to do with BBM messaging: an organised gang deciding via word of mouth to target a shop to rob, organising it with throwaway phones and getting out the word on BBM straight away, effectively using a riot as a smokescreen to cover their tracks, ‘pinging the kids’ to come down and create confusion for the police as they melt away into night.
Paul described how it works:
“A core group of guys who know each other quite well [will] have cheap, pay as you go phones they can easily throw away.”
This is a method normally used by drug gangs. Cheap phones are bought for as little as £5. “You meet up with your guys all the time anyway, so why wouldn’t you change numbers every couple of days?”
And at the heart of it, real “business” such as organising a hit on a shop, does not go onto anything traceable like a mobile phone.
“They make a few quick calls to people they are close to, get a crew of about 6 guys together, jump in a car, head to somewhere, attack a couple of shops where they know they can get cash and good money,” says Paul.
He says the media hype about people ransacking shops for trainers and sports ware like JD sports was just one side of the story.
A crew will do “mobile phones or jewellery or pawn shops. Then the message goes round that that place has been hit.”
He explained how there are many young kids who look up to the older guys – who are effectively gang members – and hang off their coat tails.
As soon as the teenagers get wind of a place that’s been robbed they turn up to see what happened and that’s when a new incident can potentially take place, especially in the current heated atmosphere.
It’s then that we in the public get to hear about the robbing of a sportswear shop, when in fact the core group, who never planned any attack on any social network, have their tracks covered by the hundreds of youths who turn up after the robbery.
As Paul says:
“The key guys that want to make money will go and do whatever they want to do to get cash and then messages will go out there. They may well send out messages saying ‘it’s kicking off’ in XY and Z, and then other people turn up and trash the place, like JD Sports. It’s low value items, but to kids and stuff – it’s what they want. Maybe computer games as well.”
Ultimately, the absolute core organisation of a hit on a place doesn’t go on any tech or mobile platform.
As Paul flatly says: “I don’t think anyone into dodgy business would put anything into writing that can be traced back. It doesn’t make sense. Just because you’re a criminal doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”