Social Media Marketing

Mark Warburton (UK) - Social Media and Civil Unrest Part I

This four-part series on IT skills, which will be published today and the 16 of September. Part 1 looks at social media and its relation to the London riots. Later today part 2 will look at the reaction to Blackberry youth culture.

Social Media as a Scapegoat?

Social media has had its critics in the past. As a social medium, it has raised some legitimate concerns regarding privacy of information; its increased emphasis on product-placement; and the debatable social element of online relations. However, in the wake of last month's London riots, social media has been partly blamed due to its power to rapidly inform. During the civil unrest, the Daily Mail was quick to play a sensationalist card; making a lot of noise over the dozens of retweeted pictures of burnt out police cars. Yet the mainstream media only fans the flames if their claim is true. Television news reports and tabloid newspapers will arguably do as much to publicize and explain the behavior of the rioters as any social media tool. Initial concern reached full blown hysteria. Wildly speculative eye-witness accounts were printed as confirmation of social media's ‘responsibility':

"Yesterday as I was walking to a local tube station, two groups of several young men on BMX bikes and wearing dark hoodies cycled passed me on the sidewalk, all staring intently ahead and veering towards Paddington. Nothing happened in that area in the end, but something, perhaps a message via Facebook or their BlackBerrys, had told them they needed to be heading in that direction."1

Shortly after the riots, however, as we watched on our TVs, thousands of Londoners - aided by Twitter and Facebook - took to the streets for a mass clean up. These online tools provided a perfect platform for constructive organizing. The result was that the government and media, to a large extent, quietly conceded that at the most, social media was a bit-part player in the riots, and not the underlying factor.

In fact, it became clearer that these technologies commonly serve the interests of government and police when the London Met began posting photos of suspected looters on their Flickr page asking the public to identify the culprits. After photos were published of the rioters in the newspapers, dutiful citizens created online groups , using facial-recognition software, to identify London rioters from the public images captured by London's surveillance cameras. All this brings up some perplexing implications. If the police can clearly use Facebook and Twitter to catch the rioters in the end, aren't these tools equally effective at preventing these riots in the first place?

In reaction to calls for social media to be shut down during rioting, the London Mayor, Boris Johnson said that, "The view I'm getting, this is not seen as a clear benefit for the police [on shutting down social media] there are intel advantages to being able to track this stuff." Additionally, Bloomberg reported that the acting commissioner of the Metropolitan Police described the idea as a ‘net negative,' given that tools such as Twitter were also used by police to communicate with the public at these times. Yet the call for social media to be shut down during civil unrest has not gone away all together. Although the government and media appear to have toned down their view on Facebook and Twitter, a narrative binary (between tearaway youth and compliant civil society), was symbolically (and literally) reinstated by a youth-orientated, (secretive) communication system: BlackBerry and its IM application.

part 2: The ‘Shadow' Network

Next Friday & Saturday: parts 3 & 4  ('The Hackers Response' and 'Aftermath')

By Mark Warburton, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect





« Mark Warburton (UK) - Social Media and Civil Unrest Part 2


Kathryn Cave (Global) - IT Skills Part 3 - Generation Y »


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