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Social Media and the Riots: how our government has got it tragically wrong

Chris Moffatt | 12.08.2011 22:56 | August Riots | Policing | Public sector cuts | Repression

Social media has been blamed for a variety of illls during the recent riots, but I it's just a convenient scapegoat for a government who have lost their way.

Fire services protected by police on Coylton Way, Edmonton, 07/08/11
Fire services protected by police on Coylton Way, Edmonton, 07/08/11

The past week has seen the most serious civil unrest in the UK in a generation. There’s no doubt that the violence and destruction seen in our cities was inexcusable, and much of this was opportunistic criminality. The disproportionate impact on independent retailers leaves a particularly bitter taste.

Politicians and press alike have been quick to point the finger at Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) as key catalysts of the riots. In the space of a week, social media has turned social pariah, with the government openly discussing whether police should be given a “social media killswitch”. Twitter traffic has gone through the roof but BBM is considered the real culprit. Either way our government have been left floundering. How did this come about? What really happened on the ground? Is the legendarily tolerant British public ready to accept this erosion of civil liberties?

Wind the clock back to Sunday 7th August. A humid Summer night, driving home from a friend’s house in North London. I’d heard talk of a shooting of a man by police in Tottenham on Thursday. A wall of silence on the matter had exacerbated community tensions, and this had spilled into violence on Saturday night. The almost complete media blackout by our national news services was troubling, but not unexpected.

There is a valid argument against broadcasting hyperbole and expectations of hostility that could be interpreted as incitement to further trouble. Twitter are known to However I’m a firm believer that journalists have an obligation to keep our communities informed of events that might affect them, be they positive or negative. The media silence was deafening.

Arriving on the outskirts of Enfield, I found roads blocked and diversions in place. “TSG have declared it a sterile zone” explained a nervous looking policeman at the roadblock. “You can’t get through. They’ve trashed it. From what I’ve heard, this is just the beginning.”

Taking a wide diversion, I found myself driving towards Edmonton.

As an ex-press photographer, I remain a keen amateur, and tend to carry my camera around with me. At the sight of a large number of emergency service vehicles outside Edmonton Working Men’s Club, I decided to stop and enquire what was happening – partly from curiosity, partly from a strange sense of responsibility, partly from gut reaction. Maybe it’s not healthy but I wanted to know what was going on and I felt an obligation to help tell the people around me.

I wasn’t ready for the blood. Bright red, forming a perfect spatter pattern on the pavement, it can’t have been ten minutes old. In shock, I asked the commanding officer what was going on.

“A man has been stabbed.”

No names, no details. The victim must have had family, friends, a whole microcosm of life events that had lead up to this point, when another human being decided to sink a knife into his chest in a nondescript street in North London. But this wasn’t CSI and I didn’t get the benefit of the back story.

A young girl approached me, aggressively questioning: “You a fed? You with the feds?” I explained I was a freelancer. She eyed me suspiciously and talked quickly down her mobile. Feeling pressured to look the part, I pointed my camera away from the scene, away from the people, away from the Midas grip of those cold drops of blood congealing on the tarmac, and ran off some shots of the front door of the club.

Looking back at those images now, they’re all blurred. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.

A couple of young men who’d been standing nearby approached me. I recognised one as Paul Lewis, Guardian writer and reporter, who I follow on Twitter. Together with his colleague Mustafa Khalili, they were reporting on the developing situation and looking for transport; their car was stranded in Enfield. Police had declared the town centre “sterile”, and no-one was allowed in or out. I was happy to help out a journalist I respected and offered to give the guys a lift. Little did I know I was driving straight into the hornet’s nest.

Angel, Edmonton was on fire. Never had a name been less appropriate. The high street was a blur of blue lights, smoke and confusion. A Royal Mail van sat abandoned in the street, the front bumper ploughed into street railings and windows smashed. Glass lay scattered on the floor outside the garage, victim of a casual smash ‘n’ grab. Fire-fighters battled to extinguish a flaming car on Coylton Way as police placated locals irritated by roadblocks.

“Are you serious, mate? Seriously? Can’t you see the fire engine?”

I tweeted what I saw. I was careful not to mention future targets, rumours or conjecture – I only stated what I had seen. But listening to people on the street, it was clear that the serious criminals were organised, highly mobile and web-literate.

As the evening wore on and we travelled further, events got more surreal and increasingly cinematic. Ponders End looked like some post-apocalyptic film set - Hertford Road the Maginot line; scores of TSG lined the street opposite groups of youths in balaclavas and scarves. Locking my car doors was a necessary but somewhat pathetic response.

I am certain that Twitter, BBM and Facebook played a part in events. At the same time, there is no shortage of young people keen on throwing bricks at policeman. This has always been the case. Social media has simply enabled communication to happen faster and on a wider scale than before. Individual opinion is given undue weight on the web – we truly are in Andy Warhol’s age of “Fifteen Minutes of Fame”. But it is naive to suggest that the riots would not have happened without social media.

I believe that a number of factors have combined to create an ideal set of conditions for these events: an increasing gap between rich and poor (driven by the greed of bankers and centrist governments of recent years); the breakdown of the family unit; a generation brought up with little sense of responsibility but an overreaching sense of entitlement and unearned respect; increasing numbers of children brought up in homes without two parents; increasing unemployment; a peculiarly warm, dry summer, and school holidays. These events combined to create a perfect storm of opportunity.

As the dust settles, the government response has proved tiresome and inevitable. There are suggestions that social media should be “turned off” in times of civil unrest. Not only is this impossible to implement, it’s a huge invasion of civil liberties in a supposed democracy. Anyone with the most cursory understanding of the internet will realise that it is not a linear beast: it’s not a tap that can be “turned off” at will. In fact, its whole purpose is to survive in the event of partial failure of the network. Yet again, our government has shown a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology.

A number of my tweets from Sunday night went “missing” from Twitter. Twitter has been suspected of suppressing hashtags at the request of authorities and I strongly suspect the UK authorities had a hand in suppressing the news of recent nights. While I appreciate the imperative to prevent the spread of unrest, I cannot accept the infringement of freedom of speech that this represents.

BBM has proved a harder nut to crack. On Sunday and Monday night, messages appeared to be flowing with impunity. Police were left on the back foot as rioters travelled quickly around the city. It is astonishing that the authorities couldn’t keep up, particularly given the draconian powers of RIPA and the Civil Contingencies Act.

While Twitter has supposedly driven youths to fury, it has also brought people together to help clear up the mess. The hashtag #riotcleanup took on a life of its own, with heartwarming tales of community spirit in Clapham and Ealing. And therein, for me, lies the heart of the social media debate.

Social Media is a tool. It is neither inherently good nor bad, although it can be used for a variety of means. In that way, it is no different from any other form of communication. And that is why the government’s knee-jerk response is so dangerous.

We expect to see censorship of the web in China and Burma; we don’t expect it in the UK. Whatever the conditions, let’s not fall into the trap of so many governments across the world. Knowledge is free, and democracy is what we’re fighting for. To give in – to suppress – would be a grave situation indeed.

Chris Moffatt
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