The riots that erupted in various cities around the UK made newspaper headlines and top billing on the nations news channels. Whilst accusatory fingers were pointed at many aspects of society for the escalation of the riots, whether it was single parents inability to control the children, or a backlash response to the government's public sector cuts, only one was afforded the lion's share of the blame; social media.In response to one or two arrests which revealed that Facebook and Twitter, as well as Blackberry were used to incite criminal acts, the government responded in true knee jerk fashion, called meetings with police and the intelligence community to discuss possibly shutting down access to social networking sites in the likelihood of any similar trouble erupting. Yet a study conducted by academics at the University of Manchester concluded that the role of social media during the riots was quite the opposite.
A multidisciplinary team made up of experts from universities around the country, led by Professor Robert Procter of the University of Manchester, undertook an extensive review of the use of social networking sites during the riots. Using an extensive JISC funded project known as the National e-Infrastructure for Social Simulation (NeISS), the team analysed over 2.4 million Twitter messages. They concluded that there was no evidence to support the call for a nationwide shut down of social media should riots every break out again. In fact the study has supported the notion that social networking was more valuable as a source of breaking information, some factual whilst others were rumours, that was shared across the country ahead of the mainstream media.
Where social networking played a vital role however was in the co-ordination of major clean up operations around the country. As the Prime Minister and security experts were condemning how social networking sites were being used to organise the riots, calls were put out on Twitter under the #riotcleanup hash tag for manpower and resources to help clear away the remnants of the destruction. This unifying aspect underscores the argument as to value of non interference in the daily functions of social media, and if the government still needs convincing then perhaps a reminder of the role Twitter played during the protests in Iran two years ago is in order.
In my first editorial I challenged the mainstream media's perception of social media users, specifically an article in the Daily Mail that claimed to source scientific studies as to it's negative qualities. The almost witch hunt-esque pursuit by the UK government depicting social networking as the spark that lit the fire of the riots is an extension of those prejudices highlighted in my editorial. Thankfully however this scientific study by leading academics as to just how vital social networking site were for conveying information and helping communities in the aftermath, will hopefully lay much of those negative assumptions to rest. The results of the studied were printed in the Guardian newspaper as part of it's Reading the Riots blog.
Image Credits; Dirt Licker