/ Technology

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.


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.

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.

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.

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)

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

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…

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.


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.

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..


Perhaps I’m a bit slow this morning but you will have to explain how my two comments are contradictory, if that is what you meant. To remind you, the first was that the entitlement culture is a problem, and the second was I have no empathy with criminals. This applies equally for (even Tory) politicians who steal my money for non-existent expenses as well as the youth who boosts a pair of trainers (and therefore steals my money by increased insurance rates). Can you explain the reasoning that got you to the point that somehow the second comment contradicted the first?

Regarding deprivation, of exactly what are these youths deprived? Food (they appeared to be healthy), housing (those going though the courts now seem to have addresses), clothing (I saw a number of clothing shops were specific targets, but none of the “rioters” appeared to be in rags, rather in a kind of uniform). Job prospects? Well yes, as is everyone in the developed world. Were they living in the developing world they would have better job prospects as these economies are growing. No not deprived any an real sense, disaffected, by an unrealistic view of their entitlement. They don’t have what they want so they are “deprived”.

Like you I have spent a long time in employment, unlike you not 35 years in the same job (or even in the same country). I have been unemployed, I did not feel deprived even though there were others not unemployed. I never felt I was “entitled” to a job. I am responsible for myself. my actions and the results of my actions. If I screwed up, it was my fault, not the government’s fault.

Regarding empathy versus sympathy, if I had meant sympathy I would have said sympathy, but as it stands I’ve some sympathy.

I am rather hoping that the much hated Facebook facial recognition technology could help with identifying the perpetrators of these awful acts.

As I was trying to work out my route home last night I was using Twitter to try and find out if there were any ‘flashpoints’ to avoid. The range of tweets about what was happening at Victoria station was phenomenal. Some were saying the station was completely fine, some were reporting it was heavily policed and others said it was closed! Clearly, some of these had to be untrue.

But I, like Andy, have been taken aback by how people are using Twitter as a way to unite and show some community spirit. Yes, social networking has undoubtedly helped groups to communicate more easily and quickly – but not just the groups out to cause trouble.

They could even help some of the looters to reconsider their actions. One young girl who was tweeting yesterday and bragging about being involved got such a lot of flack for it that she eventually admitted she was wrong.

Hannah says:
10 August 2011

I agree with Hannah: social networks such Twitter and Facebook revealed genuinely heart-warming solidarity, combined with a wry British spirit – such as calls for “wombles” to help tidy up the aftermath – that were funny and useful to communities that had been bruised and burnt. Sure, there were wild rumours flying around from time to time and berks spouting nasty rubbish but to blame social media for the London riots is hugely misplaced – surely just watching the rolling news coverage could have informed any would-be rioter where it was all kicking off!

@Hannah (2nd Hannah)

Exactly how do you think the reporters found the disorder? Just tripped across it on the way home? No, they followed the same social media sites as the “youth” and went where they were told to go if they want a bit of action.

Whether they used a tool for misinformation to co-ordinate or not is irrelevant. They simply expect that they can get away with what they did and that is the issue here.

Too many softly softly approaches “why did they do this”, “disaffected youth”, “no prospects” , “poverty” blah blah blah. Let’s just stop trying to understand why they did it and start policing the streets properly. They are petty thugs, no more, they need to ruled with an iron fist because they take advantage of our left wing liberalism which frankly has gone too far.

Bring back the SPG, our police appear to be the most toothless, gutless organisation in the country.

Nice to see News International off the front pages eh? 🙂

Hi dean, I’m not sure the approach could be described as ‘softly softly’ given that they were (still are? not sure) considering using plastic bullets and sending in the army. The problem with saying that ‘they’ should be ruled with an iron fist is that what you actually mean is ‘we’ – any changes we make to police tactics can be used on everyone, which is why I think we should tread carefully before advocating very extreme measures.

Phil says:
10 August 2011

The first “disaffected youth” to appear in court so far is a 31 year old teacher. No wonder children are turning out so bad if that’s the kind of example they have.

He’s going to lose his freedom (temporarily) and his job (permanently). I hope whatever he grabbed from Richer Sounds was worth it.

Please get it right – He was not a teacher – he was an assistant of some sort – He already has a police record so would not be able to be a teacher anyway

He wasn’t an example until he committed the crime – and somehow I doubt if he would ever become a teacher now – which is an excellent example.

The majority of the offenders – according to reports were youths. They needed a “trigger” to explode. Too many offenders seem to consider it “fun” – that the chances of .being caught were slim – and the punishment metered out is always piffling.

What we need is achievable worthwhile purpose for youth.

So David Cameron has said that “When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them… we are working to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites when we know they are plotting criminality.”

Do you think stopping people from using social networks is a good idea to deal with rioting, or a slippery slop to censorship and invasion of privacy? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14492789