The state and media's targeting of social media following last week's riots in England started out as an absurdity, with twitter, facebook and blackberry messaging variously blamed for the ability of rioters to seemingly outwit the police. Now it has begun to take a tragic turn with the jailing for four years of two young men for posting up facebook events for riots that never even happened. They were prosecuted under sections 44 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act for 'intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence'.
Doubtless people did use their smartphones and their laptops to keep track with what was going on, arrange to meet up and spread information both true and false. But of course as many people have pointed out, riots have been happening for hundreds of years without the aid of these devices as insurgents have always found ways to communicate with each other. In the past , riotous demonstrations were sometimes publicised by chalked messages - see example from Deptford in 1932 .
Thirty years ago there was a suggetion that Citizen's Band (CB) radio was being used by rioters. In the aftermath of the rioting in Moss Side, Manchester in July 1981 Chief Constable James Anderton blamed the events on a conspiracy: 'It was well-coordinated. We believe a kind of military strategy was used with look-outs, people taking up observations, and vehicles being used by spotters. We also know that CB radio was used to pass messages'(Times July 10 1981).
CB radio enabled personal two way communication between users years before the mobile phone. By 1981 at least 300,000 people were believed to be using it in the UK, but it was illegal to do so amidst claims that it could interfere with emergency services communications (Times 27 February 1981). To demonstrate how law abiding they were, some CB users campaigning for legaliszation offered to help Manchester police by jamming rioters' messages (Times 11 July 1981), though their offer was rejected. Later that year, the Government did allow some FM frequencies to be dedicated to CB users, effecitively legalising it - though it remained illegal on AM.
In real terms, CB radio was marginal in the 1981 riots but its advent did signal that the state's monopoly on this kind of communication was coming to an end. The police still do have a tactical advantage in communications, particularly through its network of CCTV, helicopter and satellite imagery. But the means of mass communication are no longer solely in its control. We can expect to see a concerted attempt to reverse this in coming months, with arguments being made to close down communications in 'emergency' situations.
This will have implications for people trying to organise parties and all kinds of social events, not just demonstrations and riots. Last week a 20 year old from Essex was charged with "encouraging or assisting in the commission of an offence" under the 2007 Serious Crime Act. His alleged crime was publicising a mass water fight on Blackberry and Facebook.