Network effects: Social media’s role in the London riots

In the wake of a controversial police shooting, Britain’s capital city has been rocked by two straight days of widespread rioting and looting. As with previous riots — such as those in Vancouver, British Columbia following the Stanley Cup final — everyone seems to be looking for a culprit, with some blaming Twitter and Facebook, and others pinning the violence on BlackBerry and its instant messaging abilities. But that’s a little like blaming individual trees for the forest fire. As we’ve pointed out before with respect to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, these are just aspects of our increasingly real-time, mobile and connected lives, and that can be an incredibly powerful force for both good and bad.

Although they are completely different in important ways, there are also some interesting similarities between the riots in London this weekend and the uprisings in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Both were triggered by the death of a man whom some believed was unfairly targeted by the authorities. In Britain, it was Mark Duggan — a 29-year-old father of four shot dead after being stopped by the police — and in Egypt, it was Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman who was pulled from an Idknternet cafe and beaten to death by security forces. Both deaths also led to the creation of Facebook pages that became the focus of a social-media effort that ultimately fueled the protests.

Different causes, same network effects

That said, the two demonstrations obviously had completely different causes and outcomes. In Egypt, the protests were the result of decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule by a dictator, as well as food shortages, unemployment and so on — and they led to the toppling of the government, followed by the military taking control of the country. In Britain (as in Vancouver), the events that allegedly triggered the riots seemed to be mostly an excuse for young thugs to loot stores and burn things.

As more than one person has pointed out (including notorious social-media skeptic Malcolm Gladwell) these kinds of riots and uprisings have been happening for centuries, without the need for Twitter or Facebook or BlackBerry’s BBM. But while they may not cause revolutions, there’s no question that these kinds of mobile, real-time networks and technologies can help to fuel them when they occur. As Jared Cohen of Google Ideas described in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, social media tools may not be a trigger for such events, but they can clearly act as “an accelerant.”

In some cases, this is because mobile and social tools like Twitter and Facebook and SMS messaging can be used to coordinate specific acts or gatherings, as some observers have said they were by thugs in London. But there’s another aspect to social-media use that can fuel these events, and that is the impact of seeing others posting about their behavior.

Social media provides validation

In other words, being able to see that demonstrators were revolting in Tunisia seemed to help trigger the same kind of response in Egypt, because it helped protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt see themselves as part of a larger movement, or at least not alone in their desire to revolt. That’s a positive use of these tools (unless you’re a member of the totalitarian government in either country, of course), but the same phenomenon also theoretically makes it easier for people to justify their behavior in a riot in London, because others are doing the same thing.

Is this specific to social media like Twitter or Facebook? Hardly. As some noted about the almost hysterical coverage of these tools by mainstream media, television news reports and tabloid newspapers arguably do as much to publicize and legitimize that kind of behavior as any social network does.

The difference with Twitter and Facebook is that they are always on, and real-time in a way that even television often isn’t. But the real power comes from the connections that such tools allow between individuals: people who may not even know each other, but become part of a much larger phenomenon via their social connections and their ability to communicate quickly and easily. That can help citizens rise up against their dictatorial governments, but it can also help thugs and thieves take advantage of a cause to create panic and disorder. Unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen