By Max Clarke
As violence last night swept throughout London for the third consecutive evening, extending beyond the capital as far as Bristol and Liverpool, mainstream media was again rife with commentators pointing their accusing fingers at the corrosive influence of social media.
Is technology to blame for the London riots?, wrote the BBC’s Iain Mackenzie, while the Daily Mail’s Chris Greenwood opted for the less subtle: If you see a fed... SHOOT!' Looters co-ordinate raids via Twitter and BlackBerry as messages of rage spread like wildfire.
Twitter has been vaunted as a unifying force in the mayhem, with belligerents, organised under telltale hashtags, used the medium to update fellow rioters the location of police lines, and specifically to call for reinforcements.
“Across the world, social media has been used to highlight injustice and abuses to basic human freedoms,” author and social media expert, Mark Shaw, told Fresh Business Thinking,” but in London it is a tragedy to see a small minority has abused it to get themselves a free TV”.
From a disorganised group of 200 angry youths, Twitter apparently channelled and focused the group to target police, swelling its numbers to the point that a neighbourhood burned and 26 police officers had been intentionally injured after just one evening.
BlackBerry messenger has also been singled out as a major vehicle for coordinating attacks, with peer groups rapidly sending messages amongst eachother, updating details of the events and possible targets. BBM’s effectiveness for such coordination is enhanced by the relative intractability of messages pinged about closed social groups.
But, after the smoke from a third consecutive night of mayhem cleared, a new trend had begun to emerge on the social media channels. #riotcleanup topped the trending list on twitter and Londoners and celebrities across the capital and beyond joined in their call to urge others to pick up a bin-liner and clean up the chaos.
Social media, far from harbinger of chaos maligned by mainstream media, was emerging as medium to bring communities together to stand in unison against the mobs, and to clean up the damage caused.
About 20 people with dustpans and cleaning equipment have gathered in Peckham offering help to small businesses. #riotcleanup tweeted freelance journalist and Peckham resident, Dave Lee
Now the power of social media was being used to channel the public’s indignation about the violence into positive action.
So why has print media been so quick to point the blame on Twitter?
“Traditional media don’t like social media,” explains Mark Shaw, Twitter expert and author, “because it is real time whereas print media is out of date by the tine you read it. For this reason there is an agenda to discredit things like twitter.”
So, if social media can indeed be a force for good, why have proactive, positive members of Twitter in particular failed to act? For three nights violence has raged, cars and entire properties lie charred by the dozen, numbers of injured continue to grow and the numbers of shops that have been looted and destroyed is beyond count.
Jemima Gibbons, social media strategist at AAB plc and author of Monkeys with Typrwriters, explains the inaction, and the changes happening at this moment throughout the social media world.
“I think now we're seeing the true nature of social media coming into play. Until now, people have been commenting on the sidelines - either simply reporting what's happening, complaining or just lamenting the fact that the riots are taking place.
“Now it's stepped up a gear as everyone has realised that the situation is actually getting worse - so the online community has asked how it should actively respond, and some bright spark has come up with the idea of riotcleanup.
“The criticism of Twitter in the press has probably helped catalyze this reaction: Twitter users are insulted by the idea that they are rioters and looters. Social media comes into its own when organising for a positive cause, because only a positive cause is really going to go viral.
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