Social media and the London riots

In the aftermath of the riots that engulfed Britain last week, politicians, police and citizens are playing the blame game as they point the finger at each other. While some Londoners think the police should have done more to quell the initial riots others believe that the media’s handling of the events and the use of social media is to blame.

This really interests me, as for years the media has been blamed for feeding the egos of gangs and glorifying them by reporting their acts of violence. While some think giving column inches to these individuals encourages them to cause trouble, there is still a duty of care from the media to make greater society aware of the trouble being caused.  The media don’t tell gang members and youths to loot and riot. Individuals act on their own accord.

In my time as a journalist, the press would act as a power for good in trying to condemn the individuals involved in such acts. It was our job as journalists to expose wrong doing by criminals and work with the police to put a stop to criminality and gang culture behaviour (Lock them up and throw away the key).

Criminals would commonly be known to the press and could be tracked down and exposed. That is still true today but recent events have shown us, it not so simple any more.

I’m interested in the debate surrounding the claims that social media helped to fuel the violence. It was reported by many newspapers that the rioters used Twitter, Facebook and BBM (Blackberry’s free messenger service) to unite, posting a live feed of events and calling for reinforcements.

What I find more interesting is the way in which Londoners, who weren’t involved in the riots, used social media to take to the streets and report what was happening in their area and the destruction that they were witnessing. They posted this information live via Twitter and warned people of the areas to avoid.

Thinking back to the days of Fleet Street, I find the concept of instant media fascinating. The reaction to the riots and the riots themselves, just show how social media is beginning to change the media landscape.  Traditional reporters are now working more closely with the public than ever before, as these forms of ‘citizen journalism’ have proved.  

At the same time, the press are now embracing modern technology and social media to create instant journalism, with no need for a camera crew or even a phone line. Just think of Sky News Reporter Mark Stone, a local Clapham resident, who took to the streets with his mobile phone to record a You Tube video of the riots taking place as they happened.

In the aftermath of the riots many used social media for good to catch the rioters and unite the community. Two of the most popular sites were the Twitter handle @riotcleanup and the blog CatchALooter on Tumblr. While @riotcleanup coordinated groups to clean up the mess, CatchALooter posted images of those caught looting on CCTV or on spectators’ mobile phones.

To think that social media was involved in both the start and end of the riots is a sobering thought. Individuals now have the power to create cultural change more so than ever before. Yet ultimately their actions are in their own hands. Just because a tweet tells someone to loot a shop doesn’t mean they should fulfil the act – yet London is feeling the repercussions of a terrible series of events.

Whatever the extent of the role of social media in the riots, we should embrace the positives in its powder to do good, but be wary of the negatives and learn from them.

Phil Hall is the founder and Chairman of PR Agency, PHA Media

Social Bookmarks