Did Social help the rioters – or the clear-up?

I’ve been out of the country, and largely out of contact, from a couple of days or so after the riots in Tottenham, in Hackney (near where we used to live), in Clapham (everyone travels through there!) and elsewhere. So I’m cautious about comments about causes and analysis, because I haven’t followed it.

But one thing appears. Many politicians and the media have been lamenting the role supposedly played by Twitter, Facebook and BBM in encouraging people to join in the “fun” and “free stuff” looting. The PM started this ball rolling in Parliament, though there’s been some more considered comment from some quarters.

But one up to The Guardian. They’ve done the job properly and gone to look at what the data actually tell us. From a database of Twitter traffic over four days they’ve produced some clear initial results. Here’s a sample:

  • there was far more Twitter traffic between people trying to stay away from the trouble than bringing people in
  • the peak traffic mostly came after key trouble, not before it, suggesting people were trying to communicate what was going on rather than to incite it
  • on the other hand, the Hackney trouble was preceded by a lot of traffic reporting stores closing and the build-up of police presence – but not inciting trouble
  • the highest Tweet peak was indeed aimed at coordinating people: but it was the day after the last major trouble, and brought people together to clean up

As the Guardian also points out, “… no politician would seek to switch off TV news or demand a newspaper blackout during a riot …”. This preliminary analysis suggests that switching off Twitter (and the other channels) would have been counter productive both in terms of the information being exchanged, and in public relations.

This is a brief summary and the paper promises further, deeper analysis of its database in the days to come. Social media advocates and sceptics alike should follow this for an example of good use of data and an accurate, research-based picture of reality. Watch the space.


The Guardian published these articles in the paper copy 25 August 2011 under the title Networks to stand firm over government calls for censorship. Online they are datelined 24 August.
• Twitter study casts doubts on ministers’ post-riots plan
• Twitter traffic during the riots, with interactive graphic (this may take some time to load/display)
• Riots database of 2.5m tweets reveals complex picture of interaction

More is available through the links in the sidebar to these stories, which have also been secondarily reported in other places.

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