Apparently, as I return from holiday, “mindless thugs” have overtaken London, setting fire to large parts of Croydon, rioting in Tottenham, upturning Ealing and running amok in Enfield. That’s to say nothing of the violence in Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool overnight. The police seem helpless, politicians are rushing back from their holidays and the world looks on open-mouthed. In the midst of all the chaos, Twitter and Facebook are being blamed for providing the rioters with the ability to organise themselves and be one-step ahead of the police. If that is the case and if the thugs are using social media to arrange their next attack, then one thing is certain – they are not “mindless thugs”, but organised criminals.
Nothing can excuse the behaviour we are witnessing on Britain’s streets, but there are explanations – few of which have anything to do with social media and all of which have been known for years, meaning the riots were rather predictable. For a start, riots tend to only happen in the summer – almost always after a spell of unusually hot weather. Secondly, riots tend to happen in the highest population areas. Riots are seen by psychologist as associated with the “frustration aggression theory” which shows that people tend to be violent when they are prevented from reaching their goals. Many young people in Britain feel they are prevented from achievement by the removal of educational allowances, by the hike in education fees and by the reduction in job availability. This all adds up to something known as “relative deprivation” – feeling you have less than you deserve. And relative deprivation is linked to an increased likelihood of aggressive behaviour.
Riots are also associated with economic downturns; when countries are in recession they tend to have higher levels of aggressive behaviour. Affluence and riots are not bed-fellows.
Then there is the whole notion of reciprocation. When someone is violent towards you, there is a tendency to be violent back. Police waving batons and charging at violent youths can make it more likely that those teenagers become more violent, simply because humans tend to reciprocate. Reciprocation can be used positively and often is in business, but reciprocal behaviour can also be negative – something often seen in riot situations.
There is also research which shows that when you insult aggressive people, they tend to become more aggressive. Calling the criminals roaming our streets “mindless thugs” is a potential insult, making them more likely to be aggressive.
In other words, there is a mix of psychological factors which make riots likely to happen. And they have been happening for centuries – long before Twitter or Facebook were invented; indeed way, way before the telephone had been ringing in Alexander Graham-Bell’s mind. All that any communications medium does is enable faster “social learning” to take place and improve the speed of organisation. Social media can indeed fuel the riots by making the criminals more organised, plus discussions on Facebook or Twitter can be part of “social learning theory” enabling people to witness behaviour which they copy.
One thing all the research shows about violence and aggression is that empathy cures it. When people show they care for the aggressor, the violence subsides. That doesn’t mean being soft and “there, there then”; instead it means seeing things from their perspective. It is the same issue as customer service in business, for instance. When companies see things from the perspective of their customers, complaints are reduced and loyalty increases.
For years now, authorities have failed to see things from the perspective of the social media user; constant headlines about the “negativity” of Facebook for instance show that there is a “digital divide” between people who understand social media and governments who see it as a threat. It helps add to the “no-one cares” feeling amongst some portions of the nation’s youth. Yet, if governments and other authorities were active users of social media, connecting with teenagers and demonstrating they understood them, those youngsters would “feel loved” and become much less likely to be aggressive as a result.
Far from being the problem – social media could actually be the solution.