When social media helped protesters organize and overthrow corrupt regimes in the Arab world earlier this year, while also providing citizen journalism when mainstream media was shut out, it was lauded as a tool of democracy.

However, when the same methods are used in a scenario like Britain, they are seen as disturbing, says Megan Boler, a media studies professor in Toronto.

"Here it's not about a dictator. Here the issue is the corporation as a representative symbol. These things always spiral off into hitting the mom and pop stores, which is unfortunate," says Boler, who teaches at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Kami Chisholm of Toronto, made the same point with this post on Facebook.

"Cuz [sic] people who protest in the western countries are rioters, looters, and violent enemies of the good state, so social media is the "catalyst." In Egypt and elsewhere, social media was the tool that made revolution against evil dictators possible. Look for facebook [sic] and others to either have a major overhaul, be a tool for arrests/disappearances, or be named an enemy of the state when massive uprisings happen in the US."

British officials believe social media, particularly BlackBerry messenger, helped to ignite and organize rioters in Britain, but experts say such tools are now a fact of life and simply alternative forms of communication — for good or evil.

"It's ubiquitous technology," Boler says of Facebook, Twitter, email and smartphones. "It's everywhere."

Ian Maude, an analyst at new-technology researchers Enders Analysis, told the Wall Street Journal that it's much easier for people to communicate with each other in real time via these services, "but that's a fact of life.

"They're [obviously] not good or evil in themselves, it's [simply] the purposes for which people use them." 

Violence spreads

An eerie calm descended on London Wednesday after 16,000 police were deployed on the streets, but riots spread to other cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, which were racked by violence for a fourth straight night Tuesday, turning streets into virtual war zones.

British officials, fearing the violence could escalate into race riots after three South Asian men who were trying to protect their property in Birmingham were run over and killed Tuesday night, were considering the unprecedented tactics of water cannons and plastic bullets to quell the chaos. Police have made an arrest in the deaths.

In total, more than 1,100 people have been arrested in the violence, believed to have been led by youth as young as 10.

It first started in Tottenham, a low-income, multicultural part of north London, on Saturday where 300 people had gathered to protest the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, who was gunned down in disputed circumstances on Aug. 4. Duggan, who has been described as both a caring father and a criminal, was killed in an apparent exchange of gunfire with police.

The social media aspect is actually a distraction from deep-rooted issues and the real story, which is chronic economic malaise and the growing disparity between rich and poor in Britain, just as was the case in the Arab uprisings, says Boler.

"It's no coincidence this would happen so soon after the world-wide freakout about stocks and the economic crisis.

"When you listen to the local voices [on social media] in London, who are not represented by mainstream media for the most part, they are talking about the lack of jobs, inequality, the youth clubs that were cut. So they have no jobs and nothing to do.

"The real reasons for this rebellion, which is a better word for it than riot, are economic conditions, racism and police brutality."

There has been much discussion on social media sites about the underlying issues of the riots such as this tweet from Josh Kopecek: "All those feeling smug about #riotcleanup, how about cleaning up the inequality in U.K. society?"

On the other hand, British Prime Minister David Cameron blamed the violence on "the mindless selfishness" of looters.

British police say small groups of youths used text messages, instant messaging on their BlackBerrys and social media platforms such as Twitter to co-ordinate their attacks in London and stay ahead of authorities.

Some of the text messages early on in the rioting read like real-time rallying calls for rioters, police say.

"If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London," one looter messaged before the violence spread.

Still others directed looters to areas of untapped riches — stores selling expensive stereo equipment, designer clothes, alcohol and bicycles.

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Local residents who volunteered to clean up following rioting, raise their brooms in Clapham, south London, Tuesday. ((Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press))

Many of the masked or hooded youths were photographed typing messages on their cellphones while flames engulfed cars and buildings.

The same reckless behaviour was on display in Vancouver in June at the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But while no one would have thought a hockey riot could change the outcome of the game, it's likely some rioters in Britain believe there's a possibility the havoc they're wreaking might force a political change, says Toni Schmader, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

"You're talking about people who might feel so disadvantaged they feel completely powerless in their lives, and once this snowballs to the point where everyone jumps in and starts breaking these laws, there's a sense of empowerment that comes from that."

The use of social media by British rioters has led some to call for authorities to shut them down.

But one social media researcher points out the same sites are used by people speaking out against the violence.

"Frankly I think it makes more sense to ask what policies of the British government have led people to have that level of outrage," says Alexandra Samuel of Emily Carr University.

Research In Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, has agreed to help British police track users who may be inciting the violence. In response, hackers posted threats on the company's website, claiming they would publish details about its employees if RIM assisted police.

One of the iconic images of the London riots, garnering more than a million views on YouTube, is the shocking video of a 20-year-old Malaysian student who was robbed by looters as he sat bleeding and injured from a broken jaw and bashed-in teeth on a London street.

In the video, he is approached by a group of young men who appear to want to help him but instead steal the wallet from his backpack.

The man is recovering in hospital where he has been visited by the Malaysian high commissioner to the U.K.

The young man had reportedly been fasting all day in observance of Ramadan and had just gone out to get food when he was attacked.

While social media has documented the worst of the violence, it is also being used to help catch the alleged culprits and clean up the aftermath of the chaos.

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Megan Boler is a media studies professor in Toronto.

British police are using their website to try to catch suspected rioters by posting photos taken from security cameras and asking for the public's help in identifying them.

Britons are also coming together, using Facebook and Twitter to mobilize cleanup efforts. #riotcleanup has had more than 100,000 tweets.

People were also using social media to express their shock, anger and sadness at events such as this tweet from @makeida: "Today I would like to see the mothers of last night's children down on the streets cleaning up after their greedy embarrassment."

Sarah Burnett put a humorous twist on her tweet: "My son went to Clampton Junction for the cleanup today. Can you please ask him to do his bedroom next?"

The high penetration of mobile technology in Britain makes the country a fertile ground for using social media in these types of situations, says Boler.

There are 62.5 million cell phones in a country with a population of about 61 million. The average user has 1.8 mobile phones and that figure is expected to rise to two per user soon.

The rise in ownership is attributed to people having one cell for personal calls and a BlackBerry for work.

Social media has been at the forefront of unrest for at least two decades, says Boler, pointing to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

When those officers were acquitted of assault in the case in April 1992, it sparked vicious riots in L.A. Fifty-five people were killed in several days of rioting, looting and retaliatory attacks against whites and Asians. About 2,000 people were injured, and another 12,000 arrested.

A second  iconic video from those riots is of Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his vehicle and beaten by a black mob.

With files from Curt Petrovich