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Using the social web well in times of social unrest

By August 16, 20118 Comments
On the Friday before the riots started, I was trying to write a response to Dan Slee’s excellent post about how vital really good social-media communication is in an emergency.
I was hoping to add a few of my own thoughts but, having got three quarters through, I stopped writing my masterpiece, thinking I’d return to it on Monday.

That was a mistake: by then, my ‘wise’ reflections seemed obsolete and rather trite. I scrapped the post and instead (like everyone else) trawled the web, trying to make sense of what was happening.

It’s still too early to say anything ‘wise’… The best I can do is round up the things that make me hopeful. I also think that’s the best riposte to those who think shutting down social media is better than engaging with it when things go wrong – and might give us a sense of how we might use it better in the future.

Wolverhampton and Sussex: dealing with wild rumours on Twitter
Social networks have got a kicking for being the source of wildly inaccurate rumour. But Mark Payne in Wolverhampton and officers and staff at Sussex Police are among those who did an outstanding job in telling people what was and was not happening using Twitter.


Some of Mark's tweets

  • Mark did a huge amount of tweeting, helping to ensure the now-more-than-7,000 followers he has were kept up to date on what was going on. He quashed rumours, transmitted calm and kept people informed. He deserves enormous credit (as do his colleagues) – and not just the flowers that arrived for police from one grateful resident! Here (above) is just a sample of his tweets – please have a good rummage through his Twitter stream to see in detail what he’s done.
  • In Sussex, rumours that spread about riots on London Road (they appear to have grown out of reports about London Road in Croydon) were quickly scotched by the police, who set up a live log on the website. To my mind, at least, this was the online equivalent of ‘move along now, nothing to see here’ – a lovely example of the police realising how their job translates online. Also check out the brilliant Christine Townsend and Nick Cloke on Twitter for more inspiration.

Exposing the looters: YouTube
We now, I think, know much more about the rioters and their victims than we would have done had we been relying, solely, on the TV and the radio. Clips of appalling incidents quickly made their way on to YouTube, were shared on Twitter and, in some instances, have provided a chillingly clear picture of just how unpleasant the behaviour of some individuals has been.

Is this a good thing? Firstly, photographs and videos are helping to identify who is involved. Secondly, the fact we’ve all seen more of what actually happened can’t be bad if it leads people to act in some of the ways I’m going to describe below…

The clean-up
How did several thousand people turn up, unannounced, to help clean up the streets? Well, you can read all about it here at Riot Cleanup. And here at (subtly different) Riots Cleanup. And Clean Tottenham. And Riot Rebuild. Or just search for #riotcleanup on Twitter.

Also see Operation Cup of Tea.

Without Twitter, Facebook and blogging would we have seen such a quick and determined mobilisation of people? I’m guessing not.

The campaigns
In just a few short days, I’ve seen three campaigns to raise money for:-

No doubt there are more. Thousands of pounds have been raised and, again, these were all co-ordinated and publicised online, using blogs and other social-web tools, including Twitter.

Satirising the looters: Photoshop Looter
The US media blog, Gawker, announced last week that Britain’s riots had become a ‘meme’. The appearance of, for example, Photoshoplooter, lampooning rioters, was an overnight success – and I think helped to send up the idiocy of many of those taking part.

The analysis
Adrian Short is keen to find out more about what happened at Reeves Corner, where (at least to those in my family) rather legendary furniture shop, Reeves’, was burned to the ground. I’m sure others will look to make sense of what happened online and we’ll see more interesting investigations popping up… I wonder if there’s scope for using something like Help Me Investigate.

This is just a short list, I’m sure there’s much more. So, if you know about anything else that’s happened, I’d love to add them here. Please leave a comment if there’s anything at all…

Any conclusions to draw?
I know I said this would be a piece that’s about what’s happened not about what we can learn, but just a few things…

The social web doesn’t need to be dominated by spiralling rumour or malcontent and, if the rest of us (namely, the vast majority) are engaged and using it well, it can have an enormously positive impact.

That is…

  • If the police and other authorities are present and telling us what’s going on..
  • If they’re in touch with other people who can be trusted to help spread the message of what’s happening but also help to provide police with valuable information.
  • If, generally, we use the web to help us to tell the real stories of what’s happening and to work together to ensure we stay safe and can help each other.

Wishful thinking? Maybe, but the social web isn’t going anywhere, any time soon, so we’re going to have to make the best of it, come what may…

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Mel Potter says:

    From a Wolverhampton perspective, although Supt. Mark Payne did a fantastic job, he was more than ably assisted by community run hyper-local site @wv11 especially via their Facebook site and in the aftermath @riotcleanupWolves.

    WV11 did a lot to challenge rumour and share local knowledge, which on occasion resulted in other contributors apologising for spreading unfounded rumour.

    @WolvesCouncil also played their part in partnership with the rest of the city.

    • Andrew Brightwell says:

      Thank you Mel, that’s very helpful. Interesting to see how both the public sector and citizens (in the shape of the very good Wednesfield blog) worked together on these things. It’s the kind of thing we’re very interested in at Public-i – and may be, in itself, worthy of another post!

  • Ady Coles says:

    One thing that really caught my attention was that Sussex PA used a promoted tweet with the UKRiots hashtag to allay fears of trouble in the county. Money well spent, I believe.


  • Steph says:

    If you do chose to write another post both James and I (who together run WV11) would be happy to share with why and how we used our facebook page during the riots.

    We couldn’t have done some of it without the regular updates the police were sending out,

  • There was a great deal of ‘community twittering’ during the crisis no doubt about that. In Wolverhampton the police and social networking sites like WV11 did very well linking the comments- trying to squash the rumour…!

    Mark Payne is a star, his information carried Authority and with his team of Bobbies also informing by tweets. Gave a certain kind of ‘3d’ view of what was taking place by twitter and Facebook. Out of a disorder that was a disaster for Wolverhampton and its national image. The social networking aspect was a truimph, Centre stage of that particular performance was Supt’ Mark Payne and his teams of local Bobbies. Plus the other community leaders that were also delivering advice of a useful nature.

  • Steph, thanks very much.

    I’m bound to write more so I’ll try speaking to you – I should be following you on Twitter and will try to get in touch soon. I can see you guys did an absolutely amazing job – and it’s enormously encouraging to see how, when links are made between local bloggers and the police (and the council), it can have such a positive impact.

  • Phil, thank you for your comment – and I totally agree. Enormous respect is due to Steph, James, Mark and everyone else who was involved for the fantastic work that they’ve done. What’s most important (and what I hope is evident from this example and others) was that many people care very, very much about their communities and will work together to make sure they’re informed of what’s going on – and, most importantly, are safe.

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