As London has descended into chaos over the last few days, thoughts have turned to the role that social media is playing. But can’t we credit social networking with helping the situation instead of blaming it?
As I sat on my sofa last night, digesting the footage on the rolling news channels and watching a rather laboured panel on Newsnight, my first reaction was to check Twitter to see what people were posting.
What I saw showed everything good and bad about social networks.
For the most part, people were reporting what was happening near them, tinged with fear, anger or bemusement that this could be happening. There were numerous photos and videos posted. One particularly remarkable video showed a woman berating looters as they sauntered about: an astounding act of bravery.
The sinister side of social media
However there was a more sinister, subversive element at work, as well. As prevalent as the personal accounts of happenings near them, others felt compelled to spread false rumours and mis-information.
Quickly, a photo circulated claiming the Army were in London, though it was clearly one taken during the uprising in Egypt. Another alarmist rumour claimed a children’s hospital in Birmingham was ‘under attack’ – a claim quashed by those nearby.
Exaggerations and falsehoods were rife, seemingly propagated by those who felt fanning the flames of hysteria was an amusing night in. Even as I write this on Tuesday afternoon a Lewisham councillor is refuting claims of unrest in the area, and false rumours have led shop owners in Brixton to close for fear of looting.
All of this is trivial noise in comparison to the organisation occurring on private messaging services such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). BBM isn’t a social network in the sense of Facebook or Twitter, it’s an instant messaging service; email and SMS on steroids, if you like.
However its group messaging facilities act in a similar manner, in this case allowing like-minded thugs to converse, organise and mobilise. A recent Ofcom report highlighted BlackBerrys as the most popular handset among 16-24 year olds, mainly because the handsets are affordable and BBM is private and free.
Social networks reflect the people that use them
Social networks aren’t the problem here, though. Like any form of communication, Facebook, Twitter and BBM can be used for good and ill. A cogent reminder of this has been the spontaneous riot cleanup movement on Twitter.
As morning broke on the night’s chaos, people started organising cleanup efforts using the site. A website was created, meeting times arranged, and crowds turned-up armed with bin bags, brooms and the will to do something useful for their community.
Social networks are a powerful way to amplify any message, be it well-meaning, malicious or mischievous. But those seeking to find the reason why these riots started should look elsewhere.