Social media and the London riots: The good and the ugly

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Much attention has been given to the negative use of social media during the recent wave of riots which spread through cities across the UK. British Prime Minister David Cameron sees the potential for services like Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to incite violence as being so great that he even proposed giving police and intelligence services the power to shut down social media channels during periods of national emergency. This would only happen in Libya, right? Apparently not.

The London riots have been a fascinating test case for how social media influences society, because it has highlighted how the medium can be put to both negative and positive uses.

During the recent Arab revolutions social media was predictably hailed by internet evangelists as the “medium of the revolution” and a people’s medium for change. It’s a technological determinist view that overemphasises the role of technology as a positive force for change in society.

But now that we have seen how social media has been used during the London riots, we are forced to take a more critical look at the medium.

In the negative sense, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and BBM were used to further incite and stoke the rioting.

In a positive sense, however, the British people used those very same mediums to strike back. Law-abiding British citizens used Twitter and Facebook to organise clean-ups, take care of the elderly and to raise funds for those who lost their homes and businesses. Through various social media channels, there were also attempts to assist police in their investigations into the looting which occurred in the midst of the riots.

The police themselves used tools like Twitter and Flickr in an attempt to find suspected looters and as a means of reaching out to the people. Memeburn takes a look at some of the positive and negative ways social media was used in the course of the turmoil:

The negative

  • A number of individuals were arrested for “inciting to commit violence” on social networks. The BBC reported that a 15 year old had been arrested “on suspicion of committing incitement to violent disorder after posting on Facebook”.
  • There is also evidence to suggest that rumours spread on Twitter only increased panic in areas near the riots. One writer noted that “[r]umours on the website spread incredibly fast with different areas of the city reportedly suffering at the hands of rioters — many of these proved to be untrue with areas quiet when reporters arrived”.

    The feeding of unsubstantiated rumours became so much of a problem that The Guardian felt compelled to publish a guide to using Twitter in a responsible manner during an emergency.

  • The Google Group “London Riots Facial Recognition”, which aimed to make use of Google’s facial recognition technology, was at one pointed forced to restrict its membership amidst fears of retaliatory vigilantism.
  • Security experts have also suggested that the encrypted nature of BBM may have been one of the reasons police were unable to reach a number of flashpoints before looting and violence erupted.
  • “If you use Blackberry Messenger (BBM) it’s usually just you or your local group of contacts you’ve personally approved who can see your messages. That’s why they’ve been preferring to use it,” said Alastair Paterson, chief executive of cyber-security firm Digital Shadows.

The positive

  • In the hours following the first round of rioting in Tottenham, the hashtag #riotcleanup began to emerge on Twitter. As the rioting spread, so did the hashtag. Groups of people began to gather, armed with brooms to clean up the streets. The movement now has a fully fledged website and the backing of high profile artists like rock-band Kaiser Chiefs and singer Kate Nash.
  • OperationCupOfTea” is a website that marks one of the more offbeat responses to the riots. The “anti-rioting” page encouraged people to engage in that most English of activities, having a quiet cup of tea. Originally a Facebook group, OperationCupOfTea started out simply asking people to post pictures of themselves enjoying a hot “cuppa” in their lounge at 8:30pm instead of going out onto the streets. The site aims to raise funds through donations and the sale of OperationCupOfTea merchandise for those who lost homes and businesses to the riots.
  • Attempts to assist police in their enquiries included the Facebook group “[s]upporting the Met Police against the Looter”.

    The page was created with intent of being a community for “those that support the Met police against these petty thieves and vandals costing us tax payers even more with their mindless vandalism and theft”. It features photos of rioters engaging in acts of looting and offers messages of support to those most affected by the violence.

    One blog, called “Catch A Looter“, was set up on blog-hosting website Tumblr and features dozens of photos from the London riots.

    The level of participation on the blog became so great, however, that the blog’s founder announced that he would stop updating it and directed users to submit their photos to the website of charity, Crimestoppers UK.

  • The Metropolitan Police’s own efforts at addressing the violence through social media have been varied.
  • Its Flickr Account features an album called “London Disorder — Operation Withern” and includes CCTV stills and videos of people partaking in the riots.

    The Metropolitan Police’s official Twitter account features tweets ranging from information on the latest arrests to requests for feedback. The organisation seems to have been open to feedback both during and in the aftermath of the riots.

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