Reading the Riots

Investigating England's summer of disorder

Reading the Riots


At 9pm on Monday 8th August Twitter user @Twiggy_Garcia becomes one of the first to circulate unconfirmed reports that rioters have broken into London Zoo and are releasing some of the animals.

Rumours such as the London Zoo story quickly spread in a viral-like way over non-hierarchical networks. The rumour is widely re-tweeted, including by influential users with many thousands of followers. Within 30 minutes tigers are reported to be roaming in Primrose Hill.

Opposition to this story surfaces 13 minutes later, while the rumour continues to circulate on an ever-growing social network.

As the story spreads, an increasing number of followers question the validity of the reports. The pictures of tigers roaming in Primrose Hill are found to be the same as those taken of a big cat that escaped from a circus in Italy.

The ‘tiger story is untrue’ sentiment gathers pace, and by 10.50pm, less than two hours after the rumour started, there is signifficant opposition to the story. Despite this, loud pockets of Twitter still believe the story to be true and it is not until 1am on Tuesday 9th August that the network associated with this story begins to dissolve.

Reading the Riots is the only research study into the causes and consequences of the 2011 summer riots, which took place in several London boroughs and in cities and towns across England. The aim of the study was to produce evidence-based social research that would help to explain how the rioting spread.

This Guardian-commissioned study carried out confidential interviews with hundreds of people across several cities. In addition to this, more than 2.6m riot-related tweets were analysed by Professor Rob Procter¹ and his team.

Social media indisputably played a key role in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya and many commentators, including Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker), Laurie Penny (New Statesman) and David Kravets (Wired), have sought to understand and articulate the importance of social media during moments of historic crisis.

How we communicate in moments of crisis is important, and the medium that carries the message clearly influences the message itself. The instantaneous nature of social media, and the ability for the everyman to broadcast ideas that are unlimited by publication schedules or censorship, makes understanding social media and its use and influence essential for understanding communication in modern society.

When David Cameron addressed an emergency session of parliament convened in the aftermath of the riots, he identified the role played by social media: “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Yet such action may be ill-conceived. Studies of the use and influence of social media are in their infancy, and shutting the services down is not the only option. For example, West Midlands Police posted their own messages on Twitter in response to rumours of planned disorder, while in Libya social network sites were used to broadcast messages from hospitals looking for blood donors.

Social networking represents a new communication tool, which can be harnessed for the social good.

¹ Professor Rob Procter has recently been appointed WISC Professor of Social Informatics at the University of Warwick. Prior to this he was Director of eResearch at the University of Manchester and an academic in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh.