Has London just had its first social media riot?

It seems to be the consensus emerging after the appalling events of this weekend, with violence and looting breaking out in several areas in London.

Commander Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, told Radio 4’s Today programme: “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality and we need to adapt and learn from what we are experiencing.”

Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London for policing and chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, also told the programme: “The new phenomena in policing, from an intelligence point of view, is social media and the Met albeit two or three years ago might have been a bit slow to catch on, they are now all over it.”

Twitter LondonRiots

One of the attractions of social media is how quickly it can share information, and that’s not always for goodImage: Twitter/silicon.com

There have been widespread claims that criminals used social media such as BBM and Twitter to co-ordinate the rioting as well as to brag about their exploits. That tells me the people involved are very, very stupid. While taking part in violent disorder clearly is brainless, advertising your role in it on any public network is idiocy of the highest order.

One of the huge attractions of social media is how quickly it can share information, or an idea, and that’s not always for good.

As a result, no one should be surprised that the Met will be taking a closer look at social media as a source of intelligence.

But just as criminals may have been using social platforms to co-ordinate, so the rest of the city were also using the same social media tools to keep up to date with events.

That’s because one thing this violence has made clear – again – is that social media is now how most people keep up with breaking news, especially where eye-witness accounts are key.

Of course, Twitter is an imperfect tool. While it may let us hear from those on the ground as well as enjoy an occasional bit of wit – such as the tweet: “To idiots Comparing #Enfield to Egypt revolution: There were 2 MILLION protestors at Cairo’s Tahrir square & they weren’t stealing DVDs” – it’s also crowded by a huge amount of junk and noise.

Still, it remains the fact that Twitter hashtags are a great way of keeping up with the news, as long as they are balanced with regular sanity checks from TV and radio. While those older media have been criticised for their slow response, they provide a thoughtful foil to Twitter’s cacophony of always-on happenings.

While it may be that thieves used social networks to organise this violence, there could already be some redemption for social media on the horizon: users are already using it to try and track down some of the looters involved.

Social media, like all technology, is morally neutral – it’s the use that we put it to that matters.

Update, Tuesday morning: After another night of rioting in London, the tabloids are once again pointing the finger at social networking, accusing services such as Twitter and BBM of fanning the flames and serving as a vehicle for the rioters to organise themselves.

From seeing these rioters on the streets of London myself last night, I know this isn’t a fiendish plot orchestrated by geniuses using social media and encrypted mobile messaging. It’s bored, poor, disaffected, socially excluded kids lashing out, and destroying their own neighbourhoods in the process.

Again, too, social media serves as a counterpoint to the mindless destruction: hashtags such as #riotcleanup and #riotwombles show the positive side of what technology can do, allowing communities to clean up and repair the damage wrought by the rioters. There are plenty of reasons for the violence, but technology isn’t one of them.

Steve Ranger is the editor of silicon.com and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, culture and business for over a decade.