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<nettime> Social Media and the UK Riots: âTwitter Mobsâ, âFacebook Mobsâ
Christian Fuchs on Wed, 10 Aug 2011 18:51:58 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Social Media and the UK Riots: âTwitter Mobsâ, âFacebook Mobsâ, âBlackberry Mobsâ and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism


Social Media and the UK Riots: âTwitter Mobsâ, âFacebook Mobsâ, âBlackberry Mobsâ and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism A blog post comment on the role of social media in the UK riots by Christian Fuchs

âOne formula [...] can be that of the mob: gullible, fickle, herdlike, low in taste and habit. [...] If [...] our purpsoe is manipulation â the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, known in certain ways â the convenient formula will be that of the massesâ. â Raymond Williams

âWhat is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every manâs house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs togetherâ. This passage could be a description of the social conditions in the United Kingdom today. It is, however, a passage from Friedrich Engelsâ report about the âWorking Class in Englandâ, published in 1845.

In his book âFolk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972, Stanley Cohen shows how public discourse tends to blame media and popular culture for triggering, causing or stimulating violence. âThere is a long history of moral panics about the alleged harmful effects of exposure to popular media and cultural forms â comics and cartoons, popular theatre, cinema, rock music, video nasties, computer games, internet pornâ â and, one should add today, social media. âFor conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities and undermine moral authority; for liberals the media exaggerate the risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and authoritarian crime control policyâ (Cohen, Stanley. 1972/2002. Folk devils and moral panics. Oxon: Routledge. Third edition. page xvii).

The shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police on August 4th 2011 in Tottenham triggered riots in London areas such as Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield Town, Ponders End, Brixton, Walthamstow, Walthamstow Central, Chingford Mount, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing and in other UK areas such as Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), St. Annâs (Nottingham), West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Salford, or Central Manchester.

Parts of the mass media started blaming social media for being the cause of the violence. The Sun reported on August 8th: âRioting thugs use Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store raids. [...] THUGS used social network Twitter to orchestrate the Tottenham violence and incite others to join in as they sent messages urging: âRoll up and lootââ. The Telegraph wrote on the same day: âHow technology fuelled Britainâs first 21st century riot. The Tottenham riots were orchestrated by teenage gang members, who used the latest mobile phone technology to incite and film the looting and violence. Gang members used Blackberry smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying executives to organise the mayhemâ. The Daily Mail wrote on August 7th that there are âfears that violence was fanned by Twitter as picture of burning police car was re-tweeted more than 100 timesâ.

Even the BBC took up the social media panic discourse on August 9th and reported about the power of social media to bring together not only five, but 200 people for forming a rioting âmobâ. Media and politicians created the impression that the riots were orchestrated by âTwitter mobsâ and âBlackberry mobsâ.

And also, as usual in moral panics, the call for policing technology could be heard. The Daily Express (August 10th, 2011) wrote: âThugs and looters are thought to have sent messages via the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service to other troublemakers, alerting them to riot scenes and inciting further violence. Technology writer Mike Butcher said it was unbelievable the service had not already been shut down. He said: âMobile phones have become weaponised. Itâs like text messaging with steroids â you can send messages to hundreds of people that cannot be traced back to you.â Tottenham MP David Lammy appealed for BlackBerry to suspend the serviceâ. The police published pictures of rioters recorded by CCTV and asked the public to identify the people. The mass media published these pictures. The Sun called for ânaming and shaming a rioterâ and for âshopping a moronâ. The mass media also reported about citizens, who self-organized over social media in order to gather in affected neighbourhoods for cleaning the streets.

Blaming technology or popular culture for violence â the Daily Mirror blamed âthe pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugsâ for the riots â is an old and typical ideology that avoids engaging with the real societal causes of riots and unrest and promises easy solutions: policing, control of technology, surveillance. It neglects the structural causes of riots and how violence is built into contemporary societies. Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is also an expression of fear. It projects societyâs guilt and shame into objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in the fetishism of things. Social media and technology-centrism, both in its optimistic form (âsocial media will help our communities to overcome the riotsâ, âsocial media and mobile phones should be surveilled by the policeâ, âBlackberrys should be forbiddenâ, âmore CCTV surveillance is neededâ, âCCTV will help us find and imprison all riotersâ) and its pessimistic form (âsocial media triggered, caused, stimulated, boosted, orchestrated, organized or fanned violenceâ), is a techno-deterministic ideology that subsitutes thinking about society by the focus on technology. Societal problems are reduced to the level of technology.

Letâs talk about the society, in which these riots have taken place. Is it really a surprise that riots emerged in the UK, a country with high socio-economic inequality and youth unemployment, in a situation of global economic crisis? The United Kingdom has a high level of income inequality, its Gini level was 32.4 in 2009 (0 means absolute equality, 100 absolute inequality), a level that is only topped by a few countries in Europe and that is comparable to the level of Greece (33.1) (data source: Eurostat). 17.3% of the UK population had a risk of living in poverty in 2009 (data source: Eurostat). In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate in the UK rose to 20.3%, the highest level since these statistics started being recorded in 1992.

The UK is not only one of the most advanced developed countries today in economic temrs, it is at the same time a developing country in social terms with a lot of structurally deprived areas. Is it a surprise that riots erupted especially in East London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester? The UK Department of Communities and Local Government reported in its analysis âThe English Indices of Deprivation 2010â: âLiverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, the City of Kingston-upon Hull, Hackney and Tower Hamlets are the local authorities with the highest proportion of LSOAs amongst the most deprived in England. [...] The north east quarter of London, particularly Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets continue to exhibit very high levels of deprivationâ (pages 1, 3). Decades of UK capitalist development shaped by deindustrialization and neoliberalism have had effects on the creation, intensification and extension of precariousness and deprivation.

Calls for more police, surveillance, crowd control and the blames of popular culture and social media are helpless. It is too late once riots erupt. One should not blame social media or popular culture, but the violent conditions of society for the UK riots. The mass mediaâs and politicsâ focus on surveillance, law and order politics and the condemnation of social media will not solve the problems. A serious discussion about class, inequality and racism is needed, which also requires a change of policy regimes. The UK riots are not a âBlackberry mobâ, not a âFacebook mobâ and not a âTwitter mobâ; they are the effects of the structure violence of neoliberalism. Capitalism, crisis and class are the main contexts of unrests, uproars and social media today.


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