Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Riots and Social Media

The L.A. Riots. The 2001 Cincinnati Riots. The riots following Hurricane Katrina. Now the 2011 riots of London.

According to Webster's on-line, a riot is "a violent public disorder; specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with common intent". In all four cases, there was widespread violence by large groups of "persons" intent on looting and destruction.

Riots usually start with a singular event. In the case of L.A, Cincinnati and London it was police violence. Hurricane Katrina left its own swath of destruction taking out public safety agencies as well. Rioters in all cases were originally "outraged" over the response (in the case of the first three) or lack of response (in Katrina) by authorities.

The beating of Rodney King being caught on video tape and shown on cable TV lead more to the riots than the actual incident itself. Millions saw and reacted to L.A. police officers repeated striking Mr. King with batons. Some people who were legitimately outraged took the streets in protest. However, the majority of rioters had no idea what had happened and seized on the opportunity to loot and destroy neighborhoods. The part technology played in these riots was only the beginning. Law enforcement agencies had to take into consideration the proliferation of video cameras and how quickly videos could get on the local news.

The fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati Police in 2001 set off four days of rioting. The Cincinnati riots exploded due the presence of rioters from outside the city who used cell phones and radios to coordinate their actions. Mobile communications combined with the aforementioned video cameras made Cincinnati the poster child for what happens when race relations are ignored. (Note, the lessons learned from those riots turned things around to where Cincinnati successfully hosted the NAACP national convention, the LULAC national convention, the Elks and the Prince Hall Shriners.)

Hurricane Katrina makes land in 2005 and basically shuts the city of New Orleans down. Hurricanes do not discriminate. They will destroy the homes of police and doctors just as fast as someone who is unemployed. New Orleans police suffered the same fate as their fellow citizens. Their homes were flooded and destroyed. The police stations were flooded. The radios did not work because all of the power was out throughout the city. Looters quickly figured out that alarm systems as well as the police were down for the count. The news showed images of people pushing shopping carts with filled withe high-end electronics (apparently the lack of power did not diminish the desire for big screen TVs). Unlike L.A. and Cincinnati, the lack of power and cellular services prevented looters from better coordination.

Now London is making headlines for another police shooting resulting in a fatality. Like L.A. and Cincinnati, the incident was in a poorer neighborhood where relations with the police are already strained. The reaction was to riot (not an uncommon practice in London). What is unique about these riots is the use of social media (Facebook and Twitter) to recruit hoodlums to areas for looting. This should come as no surprise given that social media creates "flash mobs". Most of these are the silly ones with people breaking out in dance in the middle of a mall or train station. But it does take much to use the same principle to recruit a mob for a nefarious purpose.

The AP article makes much about the economic crisis facing Britain and the cuts to social programs may be part of the reason for the widespread looting and violence. I submit that might be the excuse but in reality there is always those that are looking for an excuse to join in a group and engage in anonymous behavior. They lack the courage or wit to act alone but will follow a group right off the proverbial cliff.

There will be a outcry for regulating social media but those demands miss the flip side to what is going on in London. Many law abiding citizens are using Facebook and Twitter to help law enforcement pinpoint where the next riots are likely to breakout. Social media is like any other tool, it has no inherent "good" or "bad". It comes down to the intent of the users.

News from The Associated Press

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