Please Don't Blame the UK Riots On Twitter, Facebook, BBM and Rolling News

By Sam Gibbs on at

A new report out of the government's new Riots Communities and Victims Panel has concluded that modern communication technology like social networks, and even rolling 24-hour news, made the riots worse. That’s like saying the rotary telephone was to blame for civil unrest in the 1900s because it allowed people to talk and organise meetings remotely and instantly.

While it’s true that tools like BlackBerry Messenger allow people to communicate rapidly and privately, it’s still a one-to-one or one-to-few broadcast. You also have to have other people’s numbers to actually contact them, just like sending SMS or making phone calls. Facebook too allows rapid communication, but only really with your friends. Yes, you can set up a publically-accessible group or event, or you could just fire out a public status update, but then that’s public by its very nature; the police can see that just as well as anyone else, and you have to be looking for it to find it.

Twitter is much more public than the others tarnished with the brush of blame here; it’s a broadcast-to-many service. But again, the authorities can see your public tweets as well as anyone else can. Unless you happen to follow rioting people, you have to go looking for riot-related tweets to really see them. Twitter in theory can be used to organise things --we’ve seen flash mobs and tweet-ups crop up every now and again -- but tweets are like a pub conversation; full of misinformation and just plain rubbish most of the time.

The thing is, Twitter also helped the authorities and innocent dwellers in riot-besieged areas get real-time information on the movements of the battling cretins on the street. I personally used Twitter to keep tabs on the developments in Clapham and even as far out as Wimbledon – if it wasn’t for Twitter I could have been driving right through the middle of the riots and I might not have been here to write this (or at least my car might not have survived).

All these things require people to go looking for them – none of them allow broadcast to the general public in a way that everyone else immediately sees it. In that way you could just as easily use a blog, site or even a bulletin board to organise riotous behaviour – it would have an even bigger audience than the likes of Twitter. With push-button-publishing you can blast your poisonous mantra out to the world on almost any blogging platform within seconds. There are a plethora of apps that make it super easy to do it from your phone or tablet too, even on the BlackBerry.

The report also points to rolling news as fuelling the civil unrest and making "rioting a self-fulfilling prophecy" by showing the action on the street and directing rioters to the scenes of crime. It’s true that rolling news can make things seem much worse than they really are – the constant re-iterating of the same story over and over, bolstered by “breaking” developments, certainly gives you the impression of a catastrophic disaster even if it's just a “minor incident”, as the police would say.

Still, blaming the riots on 24-hours news is a bit much – the authorities use 24-hour news as much as the rest of us to keep tabs on what’s happening in close-to-real-time. The police could have gone as far as acting quickly enough to use the rolling news to put out some sort of anti-rioting message, but I didn’t see much of that happening myself. Apparently it was the pictures of police seemingly standing idle as the rioters pillaged that gave people the impression they’d get away with it. If that’s not a damning indictment of the police more than the TV, I don’t know what is.

While it’s true modern communication methods might have aided some of the rioters, blaming modern communication methods for fanning the flames of the UK riots is a bit much. Widely available instant communication is one of the key normalisers in the world. Without it we’d probably still be fighting it out on the battlefield of global war. By having worldwide and local communication networks we’ve been able to understand each other better; keep tabs on what’s been happening in other countries, and mitigate against extremist minorities like the Nazis rising up above the normal majority.

The only thing we can be thankful for from the report is that it recommends against action to close social media and instant communications – that simply switching things off wouldn’t have the desired effect (and it’d annoy the hell out of the rest of us).

"What is clear from the riots is that there is no simple 'switch off' solution. Viral silence may have as many dangers as viral noise."

In fact it goes as far as saying modern communication systems could be key to dealing with riots in the future using things like “cell congestion monitoring as a tool to tackle rioting”. Imagine if FourSquare rolled out an “I’m rioting” badge – it’d be easy to spot, track and prosecute the bastards then. Kidding aside, although the report recommends against the shutting down of social media, having concluded that it was instrumental in excitation of the riots across the country, it’d be all too easy to skip over that recommendation. Then we’ll end up with a society in Britain that’s even more like Big Brother, and I for one think that would be criminal. [Riots Communities and Victims Panel via The Guardian]