Social media has been condemned for promoting rioting & looting, but has also helped bring the perpetrators to justice.

Technology and, particularly, social media has been heavily criticised for promoting, organising and glorifying violence during the recent England riots. The Sun & The Daily Mail accused Twitter users of “posting inflammatory comments from the scene and calling for reinforcements” and rioters & looters were often referred to as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry ‘mobs’ during the disturbances.

Is social media a bad thing and should it receive the sharp end of the stick? David Cameron seems to think so, saying “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media” and plans to ban from social networks anyone seeming to be planning criminal activity.

What responsibility does traditional media have? TV news anchors were critcising social media for spreading the word about riots while the BBC News helicopter circled overhead, reporting on the lack of police presence at violent flashpoints.

Does social media need to be so deeply feared that one man was arrested for planning a water gun fight? After all there was a lot of community spirit and overwhelming support for the cities and police forces affected in the riots. Below are some examples of how social media was used positively in regard to the England Riots.

During the riots

Information & evidence

Live, up to date posting and reportage from members of the public, consisting of images, video and text updates, helped keep the country informed quicker and more effectively than even the rolling news channels. YouTube was streaming mobile phone footage long before the BBC had any moving images from Manchester or Salford.

Social media also served an important public safety function during looting in Manchester, warning shoppers & drinkers of no-go areas to avoid and to report public transport cancellations in and out of the city centre.

A Manchester riots 2011 update Facebook page served as a centre of enquiries, rumours, verification and media sharing for anyone following the looting in the city, including photos of smashed windows, videos of Cash Converters being looted and Miss Selfridge being set alight, all of which could be used as evidence by the police in the aftermath.

DJ & music blogger Leon Piers rode around Bristol on his bike for two days, reporting verified and unbiased information about incidents and responding to requests for information on Twitter as @leonpiers.

Citizen journalism was co-ordinated and enhanced by professional journalists in the area too – Manchester Evening News’ live feed was updated from various Twitter feeds and hashtags including #manchesterriots and #manchester.

Social news tools such as Storify were being used to promote citizen journalism and gather news stories and multimedia evidence into coherent collections, including Matt Burgess’ “LIVE: UK Riots” storify.

Operation Cup of Tea

The anti-riot tea movement Operation Cup of Tea (tag line “Make tea not war”), was set up by Big Brother contestant Sam Pepper and initially started as a Facebook page and eventinviting people to stay at home and drink tea rather than go out to riot. It now has over 330,000 supporters and helped raise funds for the cleanup operation. This campaign born of social media has grown into physical events, such as a stall at Portobello market giving out free teat to market traders a week after the riots.

Similar but unrelated initiatives saw volunteers take to the streets during the riots to make tea for riot police.

Camden Town rioting

Volunteers make tea for the police, using a riot shield as a tray (photo from this article

In the aftermath

Post riot clean up

Lots of groups sprung up all across several social networks organising and mobilising volunteers to bring a brush and bin bags to the site of rioting in order to clean up. Twitter organised under a national hashtag #riotcleanup and account @riotcleanup, with several local accounts such as @riotcleanupWolv and @RiotCleanUpManc serving local communities around England.

Writing in The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Dan Thompson, who was one of the first people to suggest a cleanup, said: “The action has changed things. People have said they woke up this morning feeling fear, but they now feel optimistic. There’s talk of reclaiming the streets from violence just by being there and talking. The broom, raised aloft, and cups of tea carried on riot shields have become today’s iconic images. How British. How beautifully British. And how very, very London. People have even produced “Keep Calm and Clear Up” posters. It’s a movement.”

Volunteers also helped rebuild their businesses and communities to be stronger than they were before. These scheme were not just successful in England but was seen in other riot affected cities such as Vancouver.

A helping hand

As with most crises, citizens and community groups are display random acts of kindnessand are taking action to help the victims of the riots. There have been numerous accounts of people tweeting about offering shelter to people burnt out of their homes and giving their time to local businesses who need help tidying up or securing their battered premises.

Companies have been helping out too, offering business services for free in the aftermath. For example, Croftons Solicitors tweeted offering free space, phones and wi-fi to businesses left without functioning premises after the troubles.

Screen shot 2011-08-17 at 11.25.43

Most wanted

Despite being cited as part of the problem, police forces are using social media to help track down looters and rioters, from scouring Facebook and Twitter for evidence, toposting images and CCTV video footage to Flickr. Both the Metropolitan Police andGreater Manchester Police have compiled Flickr sets of suspects wanted for questioning in relation to the recent riots & looting. The technique is controversial and is generating lively discussions, and its effectiveness is yet to be evaluated, but indications are that social media is not hindering, but rather helping police forces to do a better job.

The law often struggles to adapt to new technology, but the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are catching up. As a result of the riots & looting, two men were sentenced to four years in prison at Chester Crown Court after creating a Facebook page called Smash Down Northwich Town which encouraged rioting in Warrington. The only people to turn up at the agreed meeting point were the police, who were monitoring the page.

Civic pride

‘I ♥ MCR’ is a campaign and logo from Marketing Manchester to “show the world that the people of Manchester are proud of their city and united against anti-social behaviour.” With the aim of being as visible as possible around the city on the official I ♥ MCR day on 26th August 2011, the campaign urged supporters to update their Twitter and Facebook profile images with a Twibbon and post photos of individuals and businesses sporting the logo onto the official I ♥ MCR Facebook page.


Blame the message, not the medium

Social media was used to organise rioting and looting – there’s no question – yet so were phone calls, text messages and even good old fashioned conversation.

Should we censor phone conversations, or shut down the text messaging service each time there’s a riot?

Social media is just a tool which can be used for good as well as evil, just as a hammer can be used to destroy as well as rebuild people’s homes.

In this way, social media is helping the police to track down the perpetrators of crime and to gather intelligence and evidence.

Volunteers and cleanup groups are mobilising just as spontaneously as the rioters and looters using social media and Twitter & Facebook continue to serve an important role as ever in connecting communities and strengthening civic pride.

Social media isn’t the problem or the solution to any of our social ills. All it can do is connect people more quickly and widely than before. Whilst this may sometimes assist criminality, surely social media’s capacity to connect us and help us feel part of a local or global community is far greater.

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