The unsocial face of social media

Our Department of Media and Communication is leading research into different aspects of new media, uncovering ways it is being exploited not only for the public good – but also abused for crime.

A study of 2.6 million Twitter messages from the time of the English 2011 riots, found that politicians and other commentators were wrong to claim the social
media platform played an important role in inciting and organising the disturbances. The project was led by Professor Rob Procter at the University of Manchester and was carried out with co-investigators Dr Farida Vis, Lecturer in Media and Communication and computer scientist Dr Alex Voss from the University of Edinburgh. The project also involved Dr Vis’s research student Yana Manyukhina. It was published in The Guardian newspaper as part of
its Reading the Riots investigation.

Dr Vis said the multidisciplinary team had engaged in cutting-edge research, funded by JISC. The research team draws on the expertise of a wide range of disciplines within the social sciences that are combined with expertise in computer science to deliver findings rapidly. Recommendations from the study
include a more effective use of social media by government authorities during such events in the future.

Dr Reilly also made a study of the role new media played in the Stokes Croft riots in Bristol, when local opposition against the opening of a superstore chain was said to have contributed towards rioting in the area. Both police and protestors accused each other of being responsible for the violence.

Dr Reilly examined 70 YouTube videos and commentaries, taken by people on the streets, piecing together the different angles like a jigsaw, and building up a
picture of what actually happened at Stokes Croft.

“Leicester is emerging as a hub of excellence in respect of socially relevant cutting edge research on the use and impact of social media and the digital communications technologies that underpin them. Our work is concerned with the application of these technologies as tools for political and social activism, health and well-being, commercial consumerism, and with understanding important issues of personal privacy protection and security associated with their use.”
Professor Barrie Gunter, Head of the Department of Media and Communication

He argues that the people who made these videos did it to project some of the police actions at Stokes Croft and to show that, contrary to the stories that appeared in the press, what happened there was not an anti-store demonstration that turned violent. The police operation to evict a squat in the area was said to have acted as a catalyst for the violence, with many of the rioters being drawn to the area due to the use of social media by eyewitnesses to record the unfolding events.

For Professor Monica Whitty, who holds a Chair in Contemporary Media, in the Department of Media and Communication, the way the internet is used to dupe people has provided a focus for research into online romance scams.

She found over 200,000 people living in Great Britain may have fallen victim to online romance scams – far more than had been previously estimated. The study is the first formal academic analysis to measure the scale of this growing problem.

In the ‘online romance scam’ criminals set up fake identities using stolen photographs (often of models or army officers) and pretend to develop a romantic relationship with their victim. This is often done using online dating sites and social networking sites. At some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many victims have been persuaded to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused.

“Over 200,000 people in Great Britain have fallen victim to online romance
scams… this is an under-reported crime and much more serious than first thought.”
Professor Monica Whitty, Chair in Contemporary Media

Professor Whitty, working with Dr Tom Buchanan from the University of Westminster, surveyed over 2,000 people through an online YouGov survey and estimated from the results that over two hundred thousand British citizens have fallen victim to the crime. They further estimate over 1 million people personally know someone who has been scammed.

Professor Whitty, said: “Our data suggest that the numbers of British victims of this relatively new crime is much higher than reported incidents would suggest. It also confirms law enforcement suspicions that this is an under-reported crime, and thus more serious than first thought.”

This article originally appeared in LE1 Spring 2012/Annual Report Edition 2010/11.

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