Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twitter didn't cause the UK riots

When the UK was wracked by rioting earlier in the month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to blame social media and threatened to shut it down to maintain public order. It was a telling authoritarian knee-jerk, more reminiscent of a Middle Eastern despotism than a western democracy. And now it turns out that it was misplaced. A study by the Guardian of tweeting during the riots has shown little evidence that it was used to organise disorder:

The Guardian has compiled a unique database of more than 2.5m tweets containing keywords, phrases and hashtags linked to England's riots.

Preliminary analysis of this Twitter activity in 12 riot locations shows the majority of surging social media traffic occurs after the first verified reports of incidents in an area, which could suggest that Twitter was used far more by those seeking to follow fast-moving events than to incite trouble – although it is not possible to say it played no role.

The tweets also reflect a shift in social media use during the week. Most reports place the initial disturbances in Tottenham between 8pm and 9pm on Saturday night. The number of tweets referencing the area surged in the wake of these first troubles: up from 15 between 7pm and 8pm to 15,000 between 10pm and 11pm.

Later in the week Twitter may even have helped spread warnings about trouble. On the following Tuesday Greater Manchester police gave a press conference at 2pm warning of potential issues later that day. This was mirrored by tweets mentioning the city jumping to over 1,000 an hour before trouble began, peaking at around 12,000 an hour after disturbances had started.

However, Twitter was used to organise one thing: cleanup. A massive 8% of all tweets in the database related to cleaning up the mess afterwards. Cameron's authoritarian instincts to stop the people from talking to one another during a crisis lest they plot against the government would have prevented that.

The Guardian has some data visualisation here.