Shoot the (instant) messenger?

Many years ago I lived in London and for a short time I lived in Tottenham, so I’ve watched the riots in England in great interest. I’ve read the articles on the prospective causes (race, austerity, politics, police shortage, boredom born of unemployment) and I suspect it’s been a perfect storm of all causes. But one cause I think they can take of the plate is social media.

I read a few articles on the social media/riot connection and finally found one (shared by a friend on Facebook funny enough) that I thought did a really nice job of framing the role of social media (What the England Riots Tell Us About Social Media) in the a way that I think can be instructive for other communities. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned…

You can’t stop the technology

The article points out that generally Twitter and other more public forums are not the top choice to promote nefarious actions – because well it’s just a little too public…

Matthew Barnett, a youth worker in London, said politicians and commentators have focused on Twitter because it’s a buzz word. “Twitter is not a particularly popular medium for young people. It is public so does not lend itself to clandestine organizations,” he said.

It sounds as if Blackberry Messenger was used widely. But now that the tools are out there I think it will be hard to know which “channel” to turn off. Turning off all channels (say lock down broadband) might minimize communication for less savory purposes – but also shuts it off for folks who want to mobilize with a solution.

Keep the channels open for help in emergencies

Yes some folks used the technology to get better organized for mayhem – but more people used it to get organized to clean up and set a positive tone…

“There’s been a lot of good done on Facebook and other sites in the aftermath,” [student in England Grant] Byrne said. “Facebook is showing how people are coming together from all walks of life across Britain … The fact is, the online community has reacted faster than our government.”

A recent report by the Red Cross (unrelated to the incidents in England) indicates that…

More than half of the survey’s participants indicated they would sign up for emails, texts alerts, or web applications to keep them notified of emergency situations. From evacuation routes to road closures, a generation or web-savvy citizens are looking to keep instantly updated with the information they need to stay safe and secure.

Listen to the social media channels

Monitor use proactively as well retroactively. The information is out there to be gleaned. It may not be as simple as the following comment indicates…

On the BBC’s Question Time program on Thursday night, former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddock said police did not monitor social networking sufficiently. A man in the audience said his children knew three hours in advance that there was going to be trouble via social networks, and questioned why the police were not prepared.

But the Red Cross survey indicates that the public thinks local government and public safety official already keeping a foot in the online world…

The Red Cross also discovered that 69% of survey respondents expected city governments and emergency responders to be monitoring social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in times of trouble to find those in need of help. Nearly three quarters of these individuals expected help to arrive within half an hour of their online request for help. Clearly, the public’s expectations are moving toward new ways for officials and aid organizations to communicate and collaborate with them, and local governments must respond to meet these expectations.

Online community is community

The article on the riots does a good job of highlighting the fact that many of the people involved do not separate online from offline community…

“Young people don’t make the same distinctions between online and offline communities as an older demographic,” he said. “It’s just an extension of their local or religious or school communities. It’s not a distinct bubble. It’s just a medium of communication. I don’t believe the incitement to riot was from social media any more than from the newspapers.”

That’s an important reminder for local governments in emergencies and all communication – you can’t forget the online world because it is part of your community. Although on a positive note – those online tools can be a powerful way to reach your community. Remember the “this has been a test of the emergency broadcast system” that would inevitably break in during your favorite TV show. When is the last time you saw it? Back in the 1970’s that was probably a great way to get the attention of most of your community. It wouldn’t have the same impact now – you want to reach folks now I think you have to be thinking cell phone and other handhelds and social media is a practical way to do that.

It will be interesting to see what happens in England over the next few months. Clearly there are unresolved issues, to understate the situation. Again I don’t think social media is a problem here – but I think that raising the issue of social media may help frame it in a way that makes it part of a solution.

This entry was posted in Government, New Media, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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