Social media didn’t start the fire

Paul Reilly argues that people rather than social media are ultimately responsible for social unrest.

Reading the Riots, the collaboration of The Guardian and the London School of Economics, was launched in September 2011 to investigate what lay behind the English riots. A database of 2.5 million riot related tweets was examined in order to understand why the violence spread across several UK cities in such a short period of time. This reflects the focus placed on social media by policymakers in the immediate aftermath of the English riots. Many UK politicians appeared to blame social media for the recent riots in English cities. Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to the riots was to call for talks with representatives of Research in Motion, Facebook and Twitter to explore the possibility of temporary closures of their respective networks during periods of civil unrest. He received vociferous support from Conservative MP Louise Mensch via her Twitter feed. On 11th August she wrote:

“Common sense. If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won’t implode”

While it is true to say that many users would be ambivalent towards the loss of these services for a short period and many appear supportive of these measures, Mensch misses two key points about the riots. Firstly, Blackberry Messenger didn’t cause either the violence that marred a peaceful protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan police in Tottenham on 5th August or the looting or disturbances seen in Manchester or Birmingham days later. A complex set of macro and micro factors were at play here, including anger at the shooting of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan police in Tottenham, the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of young people as well as the ‘wanton criminality’ that has been the subject of many politicians’ ire.

Secondly, the legitimacy and practicality of a temporary shutdown of these sites has to be called into question. Throughout the series of popular uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, the UK and US governments have been vocal in their opposition to efforts by authoritarian regimes to prevent their citizens having unrestricted access to the internet. To argue that social media users in the United Kingdom should be subject to such restrictions would appear contradictory. Moreover, the police would appear reluctant to repeat the mistake of closing down mobile phone networks in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, given the potential for its use to gather intelligence on the rioters. In the words of Acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner Tim Goodwin:

“The legality of that is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset”

It should also be noted that many of the UK constabularies used social media to keep local residents updated about the riots, often responding immediately to dispel rumours and hearsay about events. For example, the Leicestershire police received positive feedback for its use of Twitter for providing real-time information on the relatively minor trouble that broke out in the city on 9th August. These examples of good practice have arguably led to an intensification of police engagement with social media over the past six months.

However, a more pressing matter for policymakers is surely the impact that these closures might have upon members of the public who use platforms such as Twitter to source real-time information on events such as riots. While the use of Blackberry Messenger and Twitter to mobilise rioters was the subject of much media attention, there was also evidence that shopkeepers following first-hand reports of riots in Hackney were able to board up their shop windows before the violence spread to their respective areas. Another positive use of social media during the riots was the creation of the ‘riotcleanup’ hashtag (@Riotcleanup) by members of communities affected by the violence to help organise the clean-up of their areas. These acts demonstrate the rich potential of social media to generate solidarity amongst communities against antisocial behaviour and criminality in their areas.

The UK government appears to have done a u-turn on its proposals to shutdown social media during periods of civil unrest. After a meeting with representatives of Facebook, RIM and Twitter they have decided instead to seek closer cooperation with these service providers to obtain data about those who use them for antisocial and illegal behaviours. Yet, questions remain about how the UK government will address the socioeconomic deprivation that blights many of the affected communities and the detachment from society felt by many of the young people who participated in this unrest. Labour MP for Walsall North David Winnick identifies this ‘toxic mix’ of poor policing of black and minority and ethnic communities and social deprivation as a key factor in the riots.

This brings me back to my own work on policy responses to the use of social media by young people to organise ‘recreational rioting’ in Northern Ireland. Recent reports in the Belfast Telegraph have suggested that young people who live in close proximity to sectarian interfaces, the barriers between Catholic and Protestant districts that local residents often refer to as ‘peace walls’, have used Bebo to organise street riots in contested areas of North and East Belfast, with the perpetrators often posting videos of these attacks on YouTube. My article set out to explore the level of awareness and the responses of stakeholders such as community workers and the police service of Northern Ireland to the use of social media to organise these incidents of what has been called ‘recreational rioting’, a phenomenon defined by Jarman and O’Halloran (2001) as:

“Clashes between young people in interface areas [that] occur out of boredom and bravado rather than having an overtly political basis” (p. 3)

Many media commentators would argue that the riots in English cities could be described as ‘recreational’. While it would be overly simplistic to draw too many comparisons between the teenage rioters in contested areas of Belfast and those involved in last month’s disturbances in England, it would be fair to say that sections of the media and political elites in both contexts tend to highlight the role of new media in the organisation of antisocial behaviour rather than address its root cause. What was interesting about my study was that community workers and the police downplayed the significance of social media in street riots in Belfast. The consensus among the people I interviewed was that this form of antisocial behaviour could be organised via SMS text messaging if sites such as Bebo and Facebook were no longer available to young people situated in or around interface areas. The use of social media to organise recreational rioting in interface areas is likely to continue sporadically until such time as the causes of this antisocial behaviour are addressed in these contested geographical areas. Clearly, a similar conclusion could be reached in relation to the riots in English cities last month. While social media undoubtedly made it easier to bring people onto the streets, they didn’t start the fires in London, Birmingham and Manchester in August 2011. The focus should be on the context and motivations of the rioters rather than their use of smart phones.

Dr Paul Reilly is Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester.

This blog first appeared on the ScienceOmega site.

One Comment

  1. dunc
    Posted 23/04/2012 at 15:27 | Permalink

    i think that social media is a powerful force in molding and shaping our society, and although it cannot take full blame for violence and problems as human morality should overide belief in media, it is questioned whether the stereotypes put forward by the media over the years have influenced the way people have acted, it also allows the much faster transfer of messages and ways of thinking than used to be possible before and to allow it to affect a wider range of people, however it cant be truly blamed on just social media. (p.s sorry i entered this, for AS citizenship have no clue what i’m talking about)


    Paul Reilly Reply:

    Hi Dunc,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the media often portray social media as an agent of social change when the causes of events such as the August riots are clearly much more complex (see the Arab Spring for more on this). However, the viral quality of information on social media sites such as Twitter is very hard to ignore and its use by individuals can be unpredictable – for every person who read a tweet last August and thought they could ‘loot their local high street’ there were many more who chose not to do so..

    Of course the often overlooked headline that emerges from studies such as the Home Affairs Select Committee Report and the Guardian’s Reading the Riots is that the television coverage of the riots was as important(if not more so) as social media during the disturbances- the impression from traditional media coverage was that the police had lost control of the streets and this contributed to the looting..


    Chris Williams Reply:

    We had riots in the 1980s before the Internet or the wide spread availability of mobile phones. People gather or go to round up their friends. I would bet money that more people were contacted by phone or text than social media. With the state of RIM it would seem more likely that news of their involvement was started by one of their PR agents rather than by any use of their service. If you read this and you work in their legal department then let me assure you that that was not a serious comment and did not imply that anyone associated with the company would take such action even to save it from extinction.


    Paul Reilly Reply:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the difference between riots in the 1980s and now is that social media helps these incidents go ‘viral’. The evidence that we have so far in relation to the Arab Spring (and the English riots) suggests that people do use sites such as Facebook (prominent in the Egyptian ‘revolution’) and Twitter (Tunisia) to organise anti-state protests (though it should be noted that it is the perception that the state/police have lost control that is important here, this was also transmitted via the television news footage of these events).


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