Rioting and the Role of the Social Network

There is no doubt that over the coming weeks there will be a lot of debates over the role of social networking in the riots that swept over England over the last few days. When social networking sites such as Facebook were used in organising revolutionary movement in Egypt earlier this year there was an abundance of praise – not for the sites themselves but for the way the youth movement utilised the features of them in order to organise themselves.

The riots that have occurred in London, and subsequently Birmingham, Manchester and many other cities in the UK, certainly highlighted the other side of social networking, how it has the potential to be used in order to organise disorder and highlight hotspots of violence. I was in my home town on Tuesday 9th August and had the misfortune of experiencing the pre-riot atmosphere that seemed to settle over it; walking up through the city centre I was confronted by scores of people congregating in a central point on the high street, surrounded by police officers and cars. My instinct, being a lone female, was to remove myself from the situation as quickly as possible, and that’s what I did but as soon as I was at a safe vantage point I was gripped by the urge to share this information with my friends on Facebook and my followers on Twitter, not only as a way to share gossip but to warn people not to head into the city centre. But as soon as that thought occurred to me, another one did, a thought that made me reluctant to post any kind of updates of disturbance in the area, I realised it had the potential to be used by troublemakers who might want to get in on something they viewed as ‘fun.’

So I held up on updating my Facebook status but at the same time I was desperate for news myself. Being at home and out of harm’s way I had no way of knowing what was going on in my local community. So naturally I turned to a real-time news feed on Twitter, searching for the name of my home town and reviewing what the tweets contained. The difficulty with this kind of ‘news’ is that it’s, by and large, unverified; rumour and truth circulate in equal measure, and at a time when media outlets are keeping very tight-lipped about what is going on (presumably for the same reason I refrained from reporting what I saw) rumours roll out much thicker and faster than the truth. So whilst I could understand why information was so scarce, it was frustrating being kept in the dark, especially when trouble was so close to home.

Verified Twitter feeds, such as WM Police, to their credit, updated as much as they possibly could but people were distrustful. It was felt that what was really happening was being downplayed; situations branded as ‘in control’ by these sources were refuted by photographs and videos showing broken windows and gangs of youths hurling missiles. It became very obvious very quickly that everything had to be taken in context, something Twitter couldn’t provide, and so it was incredibly difficult to build a full picture from, what was essentially, gossip and rumour.

But among all of this there were beacons of hope and goodness that stood up at such a dark time. Tweets condemning the actions of rioters greatly outnumbered those that praised them and before the riots were even over details of the time and meeting place of the cleanup operation had already started circulating. On Facebook groups sprung up – the anti-riot group ‘Operation Cup Of Tea’ urged people to take pictures of themselves drinking tea in their homes as a show of solidarity against the actions of the rioters, and others cropped up pointing people toward the official BBC website on which they could identify pictures of rioters so they could be brought to justice. A volunteer radio station for sixteen to twenty-five year olds from the West Midlands, KICfm, actually went out into Wolverhampton and tweeted updates for their followers about the state of the situation and quickly became one of the most re-tweeted accounts with people praising them for being out in the fray and keeping people up to speed.

Because of these polar opposites it’s hard to tell how social networking will be treated in the wake of the riots. No doubt some aspects of the media will use sweeping generalisations, labelling the young demographic of these sites as the people instigating the violence, but I feel to a great extent that this is unfair. There is no doubt that sites such as Facebook and Twitter, with their real time news feeds and potential to spread through to large amounts of people, did aid rioters in pinpointing hotspots of violence and exacerbating the problems – but no more so than other sources of media, such as the news.  On the other side of the scale there were acts of solidarity and great kindness and continues well after the trouble has died down, just recently I encountered a charity website posted on Facebook dedicated to raising money for the Malaysian student Mohammad Asyraf, who was mugged during the riots in Barking – they have already raised, at the time of writing, £1,370.

It may seem like these rioters have had the upper hand over the last few days but it is the solidarity of the people that will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone.