There was a day this summer where I was simultaneously proud and ashamed of my country and the people in it. In August 2011 the British newspapers suddenly had something to talk about on what would have otherwise been a slow news day. What’s more, they could speculate on the impact of social media on our society.
It was one of those weeks where you’ll remember where you were as you watched the surreal, movie-esque news coverage of London burning. Watching BBC News late on the Monday night I was waiting, almost willing, the credits to roll; as if this was all some terribly realistic film that would soon be over leaving us all thinking how wonderfully lucky we are that this was a clever cinematic creation.
But the credits didn’t roll and London continued to burn.
It burned in Tottenham, it burned in Enfield, it burned in Clapham. Five generations of family business lit up the London skyline in Croyden.
Twitter was all a-flap with news of the latest developments, as unbelieving eyes and ears took on board what they were living through. Facebook was littered with messages of love and concern, disbelief and fear of the events unravelling across the capital. As time wore on, these messages were added to with photos and videos hastily put together by Joe public. It became apparent that the riots of 2011 had taken hold of social media and they weren’t about to let go.
In the breakfast news of Tuesday morning the London Eye was set against a backdrop of smoke, a stark reminder that the previous night’s events weren’t merely a War of the Worlds remake.
While the daylight allowed the nation to take in the true horror of the night before there was still hope for humanity. Amid the claims social media sites had been used to encouraged the riots; Twitter, Facebook and a heap of other social networks were loud with information on clean up jobs happening across the country and the encouragement to join in if you could.
While the newspapers clattered about with reports of people inciting violence through using Blackberry Messenger to bring together what would have otherwise been an unorganised riffraff; the general public used the same social media networks to mobilise an army of defiant retaliation.
Epitomised by one iPhone captured image on the streets of London of the so-called Broom Army, Twitter, Facebook and the rest, empowered individuals to come together in a comradery arguably not dis-similar to the “keep calm and carry on” attitude we British like to believe prevailed through wartime in the early twentieth century.
The British Riots of the summer of 2011 showed the good and the ugly side of social media. If we learnt one thing, it’s that social networks hold the power to motivate a people into action – be it for good or for destruction. After the initial start in London, riots elsewhere in the country appeared to be a bunch of individuals coming together to jump on a bandwagon and join in for whatever they could get – all supposedly inspired by tweets and facebook posts.
Social media, while perhaps a vital tool in aiding groups of hapless individuals to reek havoc in their cities, also provided the antidote to the mindless destruction. Even the Police forces were in on the social media. South Yorkshire Police used Twitter to inform those in the area of the lack of riots happening in the region. (As a Sheffield resident I just want to say here how proud I am of the youth, teenagers and young adults of South Yorkshire for not rioting.) Videos captured on mobile phones and posted on internet sites aided the naming and shaming of people involved. People rallied together in the post-riot shambles, inspired by the support coming from Twitter and Facebook.
Without social media networks the events of August 2011 could have been very different. The riots might not have spread beyond the localised attacks in Brixton, but the unity and sense of community as people rose up against the rioters and looters was enhanced by social media networks. And in these times of uncertainty, community and unity is exactly what Britain needs. Long live social media!