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London riots: let’s not over hype the role of social networks

London riots in Tottenham

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.

Comments
Member

The rioting is the first news event I’ve followed on Twitter which has made me want to give up using Twitter completely, despite being a keen advocate of this social network for the past few years. Having followed local area hashtags and #LondonRiots through the past 24 hours, I’ve come to the conclusion that 75% of local tweets are by morons spreading lies about areas being invaded and buildings being on fire, when in fact they’re not.
In short, idiots spreading fear.
The traditional TV, print and online news outlets may lag behind, or temporarily omit some details, but give a far more reliable overall picture.

Member

Please describe the method prior to FB, Twit, etc that large numbers people could be anonymously directed to locations or organised? I realize a website could be established for the purpose but this requires more identification then the average social networking site. BBM is not anonymous as hundreds of youths will discover over then next few months.

Member
Phil says:
9 August 2011

People managed to stage riots and revolutions before the era of electronic communications. I wonder how on earth they did it.

Member

The difference between staging riots and revolutions before the era of electronic communications is simply the speed of reaction. It was shown that it takes around an hour to react to electronic communication. Before it would take weeks or months to pass the word – it didn’t stop riots if the cause was agreed upon.

Hopefully this overall reaction will give Cameron pause to rethink his “strategy” on EMA and lack of jobs for disaffected youth. The reaction by the youth is not surprising though it is to be condemned (speaking as a teacher for many years in a very slum school)

Member

A culture of “entitlement” is the problem, not the solution.

Member

Mr Beck
Sadly your reaction is typical of those who either have ability to overcome difficulties but no empathy whatever. Or never faced the difficulties of living in poverty. If you cannot understand the effects of TV on the disaffection as an example your attitude will do absolutely nothing to alleviate the problem.

It is no coincidence that the last civic unrest was under a Tory “government” – I prefer to call it Tory Oppression…

Member

I agree with richard – the different is mostly with the speed at which people can organise riots (and riot cleanups!). The social networks themselves are just a tool to be used rather than the cause of anything bad in and of themselves.

In the last two days I’ve grown increasingly worried by calls from people for networks to shut down during riots, for instance getting mobile phone masts shut off in areas of unrest. I doubt this will happen at all, but the fact that people are asking for it is worrying and means that, I think, they don’t really understand the sheer range of uses of any of these networks. (or indeed the sheer number of things you can do over a wi-fi connection, rendering the idea pretty much useless)

OK, Twitter can be used to organise riots and spread disinformation, but it can also be used to organise the cleanup, tell people you are safe, etc. And BBM can be used to organise groups in similar ways (although not technically a social network – annoys me that the media don’t understand the difference, so thanks Andy for pointing it out!).

But ultimately we wouldn’t want to shut down any means of communication in a crisis, we just need to get better at understanding how people use these tools for good and bad. Oh, and understand what it is that makes people run around smashing up their communities in the first place.

Member

@Richard

I’ll put your mind at rest, I have no empathy with criminals.

As for the origins of the behaviour we have experienced, I believe William Golding has described this earlier.

Member

Mr Beck

Sadly – that is not what your original comment stated – which doesn’t surprise me.

You have no empathy with disaffected youth – I have – I have 35 years of experience in a slum school – with 50% of the children with criminal records – Knowing their history I am never surprised that some have criminal records – I am always surprised that so many manage to overcome their difficulties.of overwhelming deprivation.

I am talking about empathy not sympathy.

A great many pontificating have not got a clue what it is really live like them NOW – facing cuts and no jobs or hope. As someone recently said – “a baby is not born without a pregnancy” the riot is the baby in question. Criminality has many causes – most of the causes were and are ignored by the successful.- especially the Tory Oppression..