Social networks not to blame for riots

2011-12-08 00:00

A NEW study has revealed that Facebook and Twitter played no significant role in organising riots that rocked cities across the United Kingdom earlier this year.

This is a collaborative effort by UK newspaper the Guardian and the London School of Economics, called “Reading the Riots”. The study casts doubts on a number of popular perceptions around the riots, particularly around the role of social media.

“Contrary to widespread speculation that rioters used social media to organise themselves and share viral information, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not used in any significant way,” the report says.

This indicates that closing off access to social networks in times of civil unrest — a measure proposed by UK prime minister David Cameron in the wake of the riots — would actually have very little impact.

One perception validated by the study, however, is that rioters made extensive use of BlackBerrys, and more particularly the smartphone manufacturer’s instant messaging service BBM to co-ordinate themselves.

“BlackBerry phones and the free messaging service known as BBM were used extensively to communicate, share information and plan riots in advance.”

At the time, some commentators were sceptical about the blame being apportioned to BBM.

The report does not say, however, whether BBM was the rioters’ communication tool of choice because it was encrypted, meaning authorities would not be able to see the messages sent across the network, or because it provided a fast, cost-effective way of communicating with large groups of people.

There is also no mention of myriad ways social media was used to support victims of the riots and to assist police in their investigations.

This may, though, be down to the fact that the newspaper is releasing the report’s findings as a series of articles.

The report combined low and hi-tech research methods to gather its results. Alongside a series of interviews conducted with 270 people who rioted in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford, researchers analysed an exclusive database made up of some 2,5 million riot-related tweets.

The project claims to have collected more than 1,3 million words of first-person accounts from rioters, giving an unprecedented insight into what drove people to participate in England’s most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation.

According to the Guardian, findings released are only the first part of the research. The second phase will involve interviews with police, court officials and judges and a series of community-based debates about the riots. —

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