Opinion: Why blaming social networking for riots misses the point
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen virtually every talking head the mainstream media can lay their hands on – me included, to be fair – talking about the causes of the riots. They’ve blamed everything from the public spending cuts which started with this government taking office to the availability of social networking.
This, we are told, is the prime cause of all of the rioting and looting which hit Britain’s major cities a fortnight ago. I firmly disagree with this idea: why (literally) blame the messenger? The medium used for the message is not a problem, it is the message itself.
Less well informed commentators have been frantically blaming Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) for spreading information to rioters so they could avoid the police and attack areas that hadn’t been hit. I say this is nonsense; WL’s liveblogs were based entirely on information from Twitter and the only people I saw on there encouraging the rioters were people like Jody Macintyre, notorious for deliberately taking his wheelchair into the middle of a student riot. For potentially committing the criminal offence of inciting a riot, Macintyre was sacked from both the Guardian and the Independent. Virtually no-one “on the ground” was publicly encouraging others to smash up businesses and steal designer goods.
In my opinion the main cause of the riots was the sudden realisation that there was a power vacuum. When the peaceful demonstration in Tottenham got out of hand and descended into violence, the rioters there realised that the police were doing little or nothing to stop them. And it spread like wildfire.
Prominent police blogger Inspector Gadget took a straw poll of his readers the other day and the results were interesting. The majority of them believed that, in the days since Ian Tomlinson’s death (caused by his being struck with a police baton at the G20 protests) police constables are very likely to be hung out to dry for enforcing the law robustly. Whilst reporting on the riots, I noticed a real change in the levels of violence from Tuesday afternoon onwards – by midnight on Wednesday it was all over. Why?
The rolling news footage told the story. Instead of seeing police officers standing still and letting the rioters throw things at them, we were watching them charge forward and take control of the streets again. Within hours the riots had petered out.
I really do believe it is as simple as that: lack of firm action to contain the usual level of anti-police violence in certain areas of London led to rioters pushing the boundaries to their absolute limit. What we must do now is resist the latest attempts by politicians to shut down social networking sites during instances of public disorder. Instead, we must get them to concentrate on effective law enforcement in the less stable areas of London.