Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Reacting to a #riot

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 9, 2011

On Monday morning I was called up and interviewed by a wire service for my thoughts on the weekend’s riots in London.

“What do you say to the idea that Twitter is a catalyst for all these riots?” he asked, and I explained as best I could how the very idea is bunkum. Safe-to-say my quotes were not picked up elsewhere, and the ‘social-media-is-to-blame’ narrative led the way through the day, from former/wannabe London Mayor Ken Livingstone, to careless reporting on 24-hour news channels.

That was yesterday.

This morning, waking up after an extraordinary night in London’s recent history, my judgement’s a bit clouded. Trying to monitor what is really happening via Twitter is very difficult, and working out what to say – even harder.

The big problems: exaggeration, retweeting of rumour, sharing of unverified photographs and video  – and even ‘all-clear’ tweets posted with the ‘#riot’ hashtag created to confusion.

That last issue has been smartly dealt with by Andy Dickinson here – his conclusion is that ‘nothing is happening here’ tweets do matter to the people in those areas.

I live in Balham in South West London, where there was some looting (I saw, photographed and shared images of T-Mobile and a Carphone Warehouse which had been smashed in around 1030 pm) – but relatively minor. That didn’t stop the #balham hashtag becoming a regular stream of all of the above. People reported the big supermarket had been looted (it hadn’t); there were claims of petrol bombs at the Tesco garage (there were none).

As one local tweeter, @DoktorWatson put it:

In one night, Twitter has gone from the best place for breaking news to the best place for breaking bullshit. #balham tag especially

Such was the confusion, several local tweeters felt compelled to walk the streets to just find out the truth, potentially putting themselves at risk.

Media became a problem. Around 1am, I lazily retweeted footage which I thought showed police clashing with thugs in Liverpool. Quick clarification came that the footage came from London, not Liverpool, and the Youtube uploader was regularly changing the title of the video.

Trying, instead, to focus on the surprising stories, I congratulated a local tweeter who was cleverly noting the licence plate numbers of cars turning up to loot from shops outside her house. I was criticised for drawing attention to her profile which had a clear picture of her face on it (but, of course, she posted the tweet in the first place).

So to sum up…it’s messy.

On the plus side, I do think real-time web’s ability to self correct is extraordinary. My blunderous retweet was corrected within five minutes. If you don’t mind taking stern words from other users, it’s a rock solid facet to the platform.

However, Twitter being used by journalists, who (hopefully!) question sources and try to verify, is one thing. But non-journalists aren’t necessarily as skeptical of information. A rumour to a journalist could be read as fact by someone else, especially people who are scared.

I still stand by the argument that Twitter is not being used to organise or incite violence. But now I wonder whether exaggerating violence in one place, or spreading rumours about violence in another (as innocent/naive as it is) could potentially encourage those who do want to cause damage?

Of course, this morning’s papers are full of graphic, terrifying images of carnage which the looters will no doubt treasure as well – so it’s a problem for the media at large.

How we use social media in events like this is important, but rightly, low on the list this morning as London, and the UK at large has bigger questions to ask itself…but do be careful what you tweet.