Help or hinder – social media in the face of the London riots

#riotcleanup

Frankly horrifying scenes have played out in London (and now across the country) over the past few nights, with rioters and looters creating havoc that would seem more at home in a war zone. Protesting turned to looting and violence following the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police while they arrested him last Thursday. The news of his death was released to news companies before the family had been contacted, sparking outrage by locals from Tottenham and Duggan’s family. A group of women and children, including Duggan’s family, approached the police station to ask for justification for their insensitive treatment of this news – but some hours later, when these peaceful protesters had returned home, the situation took a different turn. Groups of youths descended on the local area – their own community – causing destruction of property, cars and businesses, and soon began looting shops and stores for valuables and goods, even setting fire to vehicles and nearby buildings. Similar scenes were repeated last night, with riot police clearly stretched to their limits and unable to contain the chaos.

Some blame the government, some blame budget cuts, unemployment, lack of social care for poverty-stricken areas – and some are even blaming social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and BlackBerry Messenger, claiming that the escalating violence and rioting has been “fuelled by social media”. There seems to be, however, a clear polarity in the way the nation is using social media in the face of the London riots.

Certainly social media has been used as a form of communication between rioters and those supporting the events of the last few nights – in a shockingly barefaced manner at times. Groups on Facebook and hashtags on Twitter have been used to share images of destruction and to brag about looting – with many rioters not even covering their faces while they pose with their haul. In fact, a Tumblr website called Catch a Looter emerged overnight to post pictures in hopes of aiding police tracking down specific members of the riots. The main blame seems to be laid on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – a private network using BlackBerry handsets, where users can send group messages to their contacts as a free alternative to text messaging and a non-public alternative to Facebook and Twitter. Multiple sources showed evidence of using BBM to incite further rioting to the Guardian, with messages like:

“Everyone from all sides of London meet up in the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! If you see a fed… SHOOT!”

London riots Twitter

Authorities are now considering whether some of the violence could have been avoided had they been able to intercept these messages. In the main, however, the use of public social media networks like Twitter and Facebook seem to be used to contact family and friends in dangerous areas to ensure they are safe, to share images and to voice disgust and sadness at the recent events. A Twitter hashtag, #riotcleanup, quickly began trending as the public, officials and celebrities alike encouraged Londoners to join the community clean up project Riot Cleanup.

#riotcleanup

The original group set up on Facebook to mourn Duggan’s death – with over 18,500 fans so far – began as a peaceful protest to the leaking of the news of his death by the police and a place to pay tribute for friends and family. However, soon after the situation escalated on Saturday night, some members were calling for others to add pictures and videos to “send the message out as to why this has blown into a riot.” The owners of the page have since tried to change the tone back to one of grief and shock at recent events, with pleas to stop the rioting and outrage that looters were carrying out these acts in Duggan’s name. This morning the page’s administrator posted the following message, amongst others in a similar vein:

“This is just disgusting, plain & simple! Areas affected by the riots, remember Mark’s family have never asked for this. People used it as a excuse.”

 

 

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