Social media is not to blame for the UK riots

Fireman in action by Christophe Maximin

It’s been interesting to see a number of reports in newspapers and on news channels suggesting that social media has played a damaging role in the riots taking place in London and across other cities in the UK this week. Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger have all been singled out and blamed for allowing rioters to organise themselves and stay ahead of the police.

A climate of uncertainty

But to blame social media is misguided and ignores many of the deeper societal and psychological factors that are the true causes of much of the unrest.

Yes, many of the rioters are simply opportunistic thugs looking for an excuse to cause trouble but one cannot discount the fact that there is an awful lot of uncertainty around at the moment: we’re in the midst of an economic downturn with cuts in government spending and a reduction in education and job availability.

These factors, along with the fact that most riots often take place in the summer months and in highly populated areas, as well as controversy over the shooting of a local man, have led to the unrest that began in Tottenham, North London, on Saturday night.

Social media can be used for good

Criminals are using social media as a device to co-ordinate, organise and plan attacks and this has unfortunately given social media a bad name. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Social media can and is being 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. It’s been great to see how communities have rallied around each other in the midst of the rioting and are using social media platforms like Twitter to co-ordinate efforts.

Use social media to engage

However, although these are positive examples they are nevertheless a reaction to what has already happened. That is why I’d also like to see a more proactive use of social media by politicians, business leaders and the police to connect with young people and build relationships.

There is currently a ‘digital disconnect’ between the government and young social media users that is adding to a sense amongst some groups that ‘no one cares’. I believe that if the authorities can work together and start using social media to listen and engage with young people in a meaningful and authentic way, then perhaps they would feel more educated and understood.

I am by no means attempting to excuse anyone for the rioting and looting or suggesting that social media is the ‘cure’. However, I am suggesting that blaming it is wrong and that used correctly social media can play a big part in the solution to some of the problems.