Social media did not cause the London riots
It seems to me that this is the time for some responsibility. In the face of the kind of civil unrest that we have witnessed in the UK over the last few days, starting in north London and spreading to many other areas across the city and then to other cities we must have a return to responsible behaviour. I'm not just talking about the people turning to criminal acts, young and old, men and women, but also about, specifically about, the media.
It's easy to watch the footage playing in a depressingly lengthening loop and simply shout at the idiots looting, mugging and destroying. I know, because that's what I have been doing into the early hours of the morning. But the media needs to be careful. The apparent need to fill the airwaves with an uninterrupted stream of coverage as the disgraceful activities unfolded has lead to presenters resorting to delivering noise rather than facts.
I quickly grew weary of hearing late-night presenters struggling for content as they provided the narrative for the pictures of buildings burning and angry mobs. They seemed content to say things that had clearly not been verified or even widely suggested in order to fill the silence until the next link. Rumour and elevated anxiety easily get fuelled that way.
But I'm also annoyed to see a familiar, small-minded piece of commentary surface again. That is one that lays blame at the feet of social media and technology. Throw-away bits of commentary about the mob coordinating over Blackberry messaging, or spreading over Twitter quickly get repeated, embellished, compounded, and then before we know it, are being viewed as causes of the riots rather than simply communications mediums just like telephones or television. Headlines like "Nail the Twitter rioters" demonstrate an ignorance and a disregard for responsible journalism which is all too familiar.
I've noticed that a few people (on twitter, as it happens) are beginning to ask the important question of "why are these people rioting". Let's not fool ourselves that this is because of a police shooting. A protest does not equal a wide-spread riot complete with looting and the mugging of anyone seen carrying an expensive phone. But there is an underlying reason for this kind of civil unrest beyond the obvious observation that "they are a bunch of thugs".
I digress. The point I wanted to make is that these riots were not caused by the existence of social media. I watched the ITV news as it began demonising social media and casting it as that thing that the hooded youths of today use to coordinate their shop lootings and happy-slappings. This kind of suggestion seems to me like saying that photography is bad because it is responsible to pornography, computers are bad because they lead to piracy, or that telephones are bad because they let terrorist communicate. (ITV news went on to ask viewers to keep them in the loop via Twitter!)
The immeasurable good that has come from enabling communication in our society on this kind of scale seems so quickly forgotten when commentators are looking for a fashionable sound-bite, or a convenient place to direct some blame. A few small examples off the top of my (sleep deprived) head of more positive examples of modern media usage:
- Raising awareness of countless charity and fundraising events with JustGiving via twitter
- Spreading the awareness of official campaigns and charities such as Save the children
- Fire departments and individuals in the US distributed updates to at risk communities during the California wild fires when other infrastructure failed
- I also love this little idea that places some stock in people being basically decent. Jonathan Stark decided to share his Starbucks card and allowed anyone to either use it to buy coffee, or to top up the balance as a gift for the next person. Shared via his site and on twitter, I find this a rather heart warming experiment which, while being a tiny thing, reminds us that we can use these tools to be generous and trusting. and not just cynical.
Indeed the overwhelming response from people coordinating on the likes of twitter to engage in an effort to clean up after the riot should be an indication not only that there is a will and solidarity in the communities effected, but also that people are using the tools available to them for good.
Let's keep the focus here on what the problem is, and not direct out fear towards the infrastructure that supports not just the activities of thugs and vandals, but also police departments, fire services, hospitals, journalists and the rest of us.