Social media’s role in the riots, as seen by a front-line policeman

Caught on camera ... the Birmingham Riots

Caught on camera ... the Birmingham Riots

If you believe many of the stories circulating in the media – TV news, radio news, newspaper primarily – then the riots which engulfed cities like Birmingham and Manchester a fortnight ago were made much worse by the existence of social media. There’s a little part of me that thinks there a number of journalists who just don’t like social media, so like giving it a bash, especially with the headline ‘Anti-social network’ being oh so witty. But maybe that’s just me.

Politicians such as Northampton author-turned-MP Louise Mensch is one of many to have jumped on board the ‘switch it off’ bandwagon, somehow believing that the power to switch off a social network would somehow give the police the ability to quash disturbances more easily.

Whenever stories about social media arise, the shorthand is often to refer to just ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter.’ I’ve asked repeatedly on Twitter if anyone actually saw any tweets which encouraged people to turn up for a quick looting spree or which were designed to co-ordinate a bit of sporadic rioting. Most people who replied said they hadn’t seen anything. The others said people *could* have used direct messaging on Twitter to co-ordinate activites.

Maybe so, but in that sense is such communication any different to mobile phone text messaging? In truth, Blackberry Messenger – widely believed to be the real ‘social media’ used by rioters to share information – is more like text messaging than a social network, due to its closed nature. So the logical conclusion following the argument of Ms Mensch and co would be to switch off mobile phone networks whenever trouble kicked off.

However, cast your mind back to the July 7 bombings in London. One of the things I remember clearly from that day was the desperation of people trying to contact loved ones who they knew were in London. They couldn’t get through because the mobile phone networks were either closed down by the police – as reported in this coroner’s report – or, as generally believed, couldn’t cope with the volume of calls being made. Either way, lack of communication when trouble occurs can have the opposite effect of quelling rumours, such shutdown can in fact make rumours fly faster.

With that in mind, I found a blog post by PC Richard Stanley, a West Midlands police officer, particularly interesting. He’s very active on Twitter, and documented his experiences of using social media during riots in the West Midlands:

My thoughts on this are that for any message that encouraged people to meet up in Birmingham or Wolverhampton, as examples, the networks were clogged with hundreds of other false and fruitless ‘It’s going to kick off at…’ tweets meaning the rumour mill itself impacted of social media’s apparent ability to focus people at a certain time and place as the ‘plans’ became so diluted and disorganised.

This is not to say that some of the rioters didn’t get the idea to join in the ‘fun’ having received the call on BBM, I’m sure they did, but the merits of social networking still far, far outweigh the disadvantages at the time of a crisis.

Yes, misinformation can spread and spread fast but so can reliable, reassuring updates and at a time of unrest, this is what people need most of all.

I would respectfully suggest the conclusion of a police officer who has experience of using social media during a riot far outweighs the hollow rhetoric of the politicians echoing out of the Westminster bubble.

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