News & Views

The London Riots

by Contagious Team

How technology fuelled, documented and helped clean up after the London Riots

Sparked by the shooting in London of Tottenham man Mark Duggan last Thursday by the police, localised protests have escalated into the biggest riots the country has seen in decades. Police have been overwhelmed, shops looted, cars and buildings set alight, with opinions sharply divided between those who view the events as evidence of the violent nihilism of disenfranchised youths or simply of opportunistic criminals.

But as Londoners - including Contagious writers who witnessed rioting and looting firsthand - battened down the hatches, a series of enterprising, tech-savvy locals showed ingenuity and quick thinking, tapping easily available social, mobile and online resources to help in whatever way they could, from sharing breaking news, to mapping hotspots, identifying thieves, organising clean-ups and, in the face of adversity, some light humour.

Reflecting the rise of citizen journalism, which is increasingly becoming a quicker and more entrepreneurial resource than traditional outlets, Twitter became the de facto news source for breaking events locally. Controversially, despite some using the service to incite and rally rioters, the site declined to shut accounts of those involved, citing free speech concerns. The service was a-buzz with a video of one West Indian resident's impassioned diatribe against the looters, garnering over 1.5 million views: 

Facebook, meanwhile, showed once again that it is the virtual gathering place for causes, a public, social rallying point for outcries against the riots and support for the Metropolitan Police, with one page, Supporting the Met Police Against the London Riots at one point reportedly receiving hundreds, even thousands of Likes per minute at the height of the unrest, hitting more than 880,000

While several journalists were attacked and coverage limited to helicopter footage and from behind police lines, it was blogs and the likes of counter-culture magazine Vicethat took to the heart of events, posting remarkable photos, videos, exclusive interviews and commentary that put many traditional outlets to shame.

But social media coverage was often disorganised, of course, so in response to that and the rather chaotic rolling news from traditional news sources, James Cridland, managing director of free media resource, cobbled together a useful bit of data viz, using Google Maps as a mash up showing flashpoints, what had happened, and when, to help members of the track keep track of events visually. That so impressed The Guardian that they took it on themselves the next day.

Popular photo-blogging service Tumblr - easy to set up and post to - proved an unlikely hub for citizen policing too as some Londoners braved the violence to snap photos of thieves and posted them to Catch a Looter, sharing them as widely as possible to identify and have culprits arrested. The Metropolitan Police is similarly releasing the first CCTV footage of looters onto Flickr, asking members of the public to help with identification. 

Showing typically British gallows humour, the more creatively-minded turned to Tumblr blog Photoshoplooter, posting comicly reworked photos of looters.  

As Londoners woke up to a burned, bruised and battered city, social media showed how it can quickly and simply faciltate crowdsourced, collaborative projects. In a stirring show of public goodwill and civic repsonsibility, hashtag #riotscleanup quickly spread across Twitter, gathering 86,000 followers who rallied physically on Monday in Hackney and Clapham with brooms to clean up the mess of the night before. A Facebook page Post Riot Clean-up: let's help London has quickly gained 18,000 fans, helping co-ordinate groundroots clean-up efforts.

Some help is more nefarious than others however. The Guardian, among other newspapers, is reporting that the quick fire attacks and disappearance of those involved has been organised using Blackberry's encrypted messenger service BBM, which the police cannot monitor in the same way as, say Twitter, mobile or text. Anonymous, decentralised and allowing distribution between select groups, it has proved the perfect communication tool and caught the police flatfooted.

Where Twitter has courted controversy by refusing to shut down accounts from those rallying the chaos, Blackberry has quickly - and publicly - vowed to help police with its enquiries, giving them access to details and communications of those involved, reflecting quick-thinking, reflexive modern PR.