Don’t blame Twitter or Facebook for London riots

Riots in LondonApparently, 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.

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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones

@grahamjones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
UPDATE: Don't miss the latest insight from Graham Jones - https://t.co/x3FDFjcDbe - 56 mins ago
Graham Jones

7 thoughts on “Don’t blame Twitter or Facebook for London riots

  1. Excellent post Graham with some very good points.

    As you've quite rightly pointed out, social media is not to blame for the riots but merely a tool being used as a way of coordinating the attacks. Although I feel that most of the people involved in the troubles are opportunistic thugs, I nevertheless recognise that there are also a number of societal and psychological factors that are the underpinning causes of some of the unrest.

    I agree that social media should and can be used for good. We are already seeing support on Twitter through hash tags (e.g. #riotcleanup) as well as Facebook pages dedicated to organising community clean-ups (e.g. http://www.facebook.com/londoncleanup).

    However, although these are positive they are nevertheless reactive to what's already happened and I'd like to see a more proactive use of social media by politicians, business leaders and the police to connect with people and build relationships. I really think this can be done if the government and authorities put their minds together and use social media authentically and correctly.

    • Hi Gavin

      Many thanks for your comments and for the links to the "clean up" information.

      I agree that the politicians need to be much more proactive in their use of social media and need to understand it more – at the moment most MPs are largely using social media as some kind of ego boost, rather than a proper communications system.

      • Interestingly I've spoken to a number of politicians recently about social media and their uses of it – including a couple who came to one of our Kickstart workshops.

        I see no evidence that anyone there understands the huge societal shift that's happening and plans seem to be aimed at not being left too far behind – tacked on to existing strategies.

        As with most major changes politicians and government are on track for being late to the party, playing catch-up having missed most of the opportunities for us all I'm afraid.

  2. I dont blame twitter or Facebook and haven't heard much of the blame being directed there. From the reports I have read the most popular method was blackberry instant messaging and thanks to our red tape these can only be monitored on an individual basis, even in situations like these which seems crazy.

    As for other analysis I personally believe we are being too generous with our opinions and urge to rationalise and explain things. Sometimes people just act like greedy thugs when the opportunity presents itself and Itrimt believe for one minute any of these thugs thought about uni fees before robbing a telly!

  3. Gavin,

    I have to agree the riots were due to a combination of factors, the humid weather, closing of the youth clubs, and police being aggressive towards the frustrated teenagers.

    This has all lead to the resulting riots.

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