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Columnists

Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills

dixe.jpgThe Kaiser Chiefs must be feeling pretty smug right now. Admittedly, Leeds' favourite beat music combo released 'I Predict A Riot' in November 2004, so it took their forecast the best part of seven years to come to fruition, but compare that with some of Nostradamus' punts and they're the Buzz Lightyear of soothsayers.

The rioting even visited my own small village of Bethnal Green, causing me to venture forth from my ivory flat to see what was going on. Watching the people get lairy, it's not very pretty, I tell thee. As I tweeted so cogently at the time: 'Just cycled down the Bethnal Green Road. Most shops shut. A lot of lurking and staring going on but nothing else.' (You really should follow my tweets @dixewills. Some of them are to be turned into films, you know.) An hour or so later, the lurkers and starers looted the local Tesco. The biter bit, you might say.

Personally, I blame that David Cameron. Admittedly, he was sunning himself in Italy while the riots took place (and for some days afterwards), so even the Met would probably struggle to fit him up. However, as many have pointed out, opening his speech to a recalled Parliament by declaring, 'It is time for our country to take stock,' is surely incitement to loot.

Perhaps to make up for this, the prime minister aired some ad hoc musings on 'whether it would be right' to ban people from using social networks 'when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality'. Louise Mensch, not an MP who takes to being accused of deliberating before she opens her mouth, even called for Facebook and Twitter to be suspended during national emergencies.

Or perhaps you think I'm being a little harsh. Some appeals encouraging people to riot were indeed posted on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter. However, The Guardian, bless their Twitter-obsessed socks, analysed an eye-reddening 2.5m tweets about the riots (bit.ly/pCiq5E) and discovered that the vast majority were sent in reaction to rioting breaking out rather than to organise the violence beforehand (and some 200,000 helped coordinate the public-led clean-up operation afterwards).

During the worst of the disturbances I myself noticed that many of the tweets were appeals for information on whether it was safe to go home a certain way, or were responses to those queries. As is so often the case nowadays, Twitter proved to be a much more up-to-the-minute and effective means of finding out what was going on than the traditional news media. Meanwhile, on Facebook, it has become apparent from trials of those who encouraged rioting in their home towns that such calls ended in abject failure.

The home secretary Theresa May has since declared that the government has pulled back from restricting internet services. However, it behoves us to stay vigilant. While freedom doesn't tend to disappear overnight, it only takes a few good knee jerks to send it sprawling.

Dixe Wills