Many of the recent news reports mentioned that London officials were considering cutting off Twitter and other instant messaging such as Blackberry BBM as they were facilitating the rioting and looting.
This reminds me of an old short story by Larry Niven, called “Flash Crowd“. This SciFi story takes place in a society which has mastered teleportation booths. You just go into a phone-booth-like box, dial the number of where you want to go, and, bingo!, you’re there. Niven starts off exploring the social implications of this, describing communities with no physical access routes needed because you can just teleport in. But then social unrest sparks a riot, which gets reported on the news and, as is the way with human nature, results in people rushing to the riot site because of curiosity … from all over the world. The riot grows exponentially as people teleport in, but the area is physically enclosed, resulting in people being crushed to death. I find it a remarkable bit of prediction, given the recent news reports from London.
Well, we don’t have teleportation, and the world is not likely to flock to a riot, but a city or a country might. Instant messaging and Twitter would tell you exactly where the action is, where the police interventions are (and are not) happening, and provide a level of coordination for rioters and looters that would rival a military action. If there’s a skirmish somewhere that reaches Twitter, people with common sense would likely move away from the conflict, but we all know that there is no shortage of people who would move towards it, amplifying the problem and potentially resulting in a disaster. We’ve only seen the beginning of this, as instant messaging has been mentioned in conjunction with the riots in London and the rebellion in Cairo.
I can see it becoming an ever increasing factor in the equations of mob actions as more people become used to the new technologies. It is certainly a part of the equations to which law enforcement will have to start paying attention, as examples of our own “flash crowd” or flash mob begin to spring up.