How the UK Riot showed two side of social media

Now that the storm surrounding one of the most horrific events that London has seen for many decades has started to die down I feel that it is important to rationally reflect over the role that social media played within it.

As I am sure that the majority did, I watched the shocking events unfold live on the news channels. There were many mentions of media being involved or playing a part in the UK riots. Some followed the generic discourse of ‘youth’ violence – and I use the term cautiously as the arrest demographics are suggesting this might not be the correct term to use – by blaming video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, as one of the causes. However, the evidence for this type of argument is flawed to say the very least.

It was the reporting of Twitter and Blackberry Messenger’s involvement in the riots which was new, and most debatable – The Sun leading with ‘police chiefs last night vowed to hunt down the thugs who used social media to organise and encourage the sickening scenes of violence’. Even David Cameron has stated that the convicted rioters should be banned from using social media; however I feel that this might be empty rhetoric.

I am certainly not denying that the rioters used social media, a quick search for hash-tags on Twitter confirms that many were actively using it to organise events, but I am definitely not saying that social media is a bad communication tool or that it can be blamed for the riots.

Proof of this can be found in the days following the unrest. The impressive use of Twitter to organise campaigns for the benefit of society in London and Birmingham is a perfect example. The hash-tags #riotcleanup and#operationcupoftea became a viral sensation on the Tuesday, with many celebrity users of Twitter backing the motion. The physical results of the hash-tag were reported internationally with hundreds, maybe even thousands coming out onto the streets in a collective display of community goodwill.

Sam Pepper’s #operationcupoftea became equally popular, inviting people to display solidarity during the dark times by uploading a photo of themselves or their family drinking cups of tea in their homes. Some even took this further by taking cups of tea out to the police on the streets.

As Dan Thompson, creator of the #riotcleanup stated, “I get really annoyed with people slagging off Twitter. It’s phenomenally useful for people getting their community together and getting working. This just shows there are far more good people than bad.”

So what does all of this mean?

Peter Bright rightly points out in his blog post, ‘Social networks are just a tool. Like any tool, some will use them for ill ends, but many others will put them to positive uses’.

But all of these examples demonstrate perfectly how social networks can be used to mobilise groups in meaningful community engagement. Depending upon the strategic aims of the group, it can be used for better or for worse, but it extends beyond the digital nature of the computer screen and can influence people’s physical actions. Companies, groups and PRs should have been watching #riotcleanup and #operationcupoftea intently, as they perfectly demonstrate the power of an effective strategic use of these mediums.