Social media and riots - a double-edged sword

Lecturer in Media and Communication Dr Paul Reilly discusses the role of the likes of Twitter and Facebook in times of civil unrest.

The recent riots appeared to be driven by the use of social media, such as Blackberry, Twitter, and Facebook, amongst others, and the government responded by suggesting it would explore the possibility of temporary closures of social media networks during periods of civil unrest.

Blaming social media, however, does not represent the whole picture, in the view of University of Leicester expert on politics and new media, Dr Paul Reilly.

The use of new media in times of unrest, Dr Reilly contends, has had both positive and negative aspects and is riddled with contradictions.  

While undoubtedly rioters and looters did keep in touch and direct operations through social media, Hackney shopkeepers were also able to follow events on Twitter, allowing them to board up their shops and leave when it appeared the rioting was moving their way.

In Leicester the police used Twitter to dispel rumours and hearsay during the disturbances. “They communicated through Twitter during the riots rather than just used the site afterwards for intelligence purposes,” said Dr Reilly.  

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

People on the streets in Stokes Croft took short videos with their mobile phones to show the actions of the police.  These videos were later put on YouTube, often contradicting the media’s interpretation of events.

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

In his recent paper, entitled ‘Every Little Helps’, given at the British Sociological Association Media Studies Group Conference, he argued 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-Tesco demonstration that turned violent but rather a peaceful event gate-crashed by rioters.

One aspect of the Stokes Croft unrest that seems to have been bypassed by the media, for instance, but which featured prominently on YouTube videos, was the police action to evict a squat in the area between 9.00pm and 10.00pm on the Thursday before a bank holiday.

“I pieced together things that were not picked up even in the press,” said Dr Reilly.  

“A lot of people from the area were defending their legitimate protests on YouTube and trying to differentiate this from the violence. They were using surveillance techniques to illustrate what had happened and to counter what the media said about it.  

“They probably failed in their aim because the public felt sorry for the police, rather than sympathetic to those making the recordings, and in many cases peaceful protestors caught on camera received no credit at all.

“It all points to a trend of how people, young and older, have access to information on social media in ways that haven’t been available before. This goes back to 9/11, it’s not new.  But the degree to which people can post videos of events and comment on them is new.”

One of the factors emerging from Stokes Croft was a growing awareness that YouTube videos and Tweets, intended to check police action, could actually be used by the police to identify and arrest people.

The dangers of capturing events on video were recognised at Stokes Croft, yet in the recent riots some people seemed to be almost complicit in their own downfall, providing evidence against themselves on new media that anyone could access.

“This reflects the broader trends in the use of social media,” said Dr Reilly.   “Some people use it to enhance their work profile or increase their network of friends, while others use it in ill-advised ways, often over-exposing themselves.”

As for the suggestion of censoring social media during times of unrest, Dr Reilly feels that would have been hypocritical from a government that has viewed social media as a positive factor in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt.  “If protestors in countries involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ should be allowed to use Twitter then surely that should also be true for people in England,” he said.

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