Okay, read­ing the riots on Twitter. I just want to briefly say a few things for those of you who don’t know what hap­pened in detail last sum­mer in the United Kingdom. It start­ed on the 4th of August when a man was shot in Tottenham. His name was Mark Duggan, and he was shot by the police. And he was shot under very sus­pect cir­cum­stances that were nev­er real­ly ful­ly cleared up. And his fam­i­ly at the time real­ly was look­ing for answers that they did­n’t get from the police. So on the Saturday after his death, a num­ber of fam­i­ly mem­bers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers went to the police sta­tion in Tottenham to seek answers to what has happened.

And they did­n’t get any­where. Nobody would speak to them, and so they were there as a group of peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ty as well, and nobody would speak to them. No senior police offi­cer addressed them. They left around nine o’clock, at which point the ten­sion in the area was real­ly mount­ing and sort of tipped over. The fam­i­ly went home and the ten­sion real­ly tipped over, and that’s real­ly when the spark of the riots start­ed with the burn­ing of two police cars in Tottenham.

A double decker bus burns as riot police try to contain a large group of people on a main road in Tottenham, north London on August 6 2011.  Two police cars were on Saturday set ablaze in north London following a protest over the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man in an armed stand-off with officers.  The patrol cars were torched as dozens gathered outside the police station on the High Road in Tottenham.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

This led to fur­ther wide­spread loot­ing in the Tottenham area, and this is one of the images that you may remem­ber if you fol­lowed this at all on the news. This cer­tain­ly is one of the images that I vivid­ly remem­ber when I fol­lowed the news on Twitter and just had this awful feel­ing in my stom­ach, think­ing this is just going to blow up beyond pro­por­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly to do with the cir­cum­stances of his death. And it did.

The next day in London, it spread. It spread to the North of London to Enfield ini­tial­ly, and then also to the South to Brixton, as well as oth­er areas in the city. And the focus moved away slight­ly from clash­es with the police and was now very much about loot­ing and steal­ing cer­tain items. You may remem­ber that one of the stores in par­tic­u­lar that was hit very heav­i­ly was Foot Locker. Foot Locker seems to be caught up in riots quite often, and we can think about the com­mod­i­ty and hyper desires peo­ple have for par­tic­u­lar train­ers. So Foot Locker was hit very heav­i­ly dur­ing the riots.

On the third day, the dis­or­der spread to oth­er parts of the United Kingdom, and London itself saw the worst 24 hours of civ­il unrest in its recent his­to­ry, and 22 or the 32 bor­oughs in London were very neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by riot­ing. And its worth tak­ing a deep breath to imag­ine the scale of a city like London and the scale of 22 out of 32 bor­oughs being affect­ed by this. On that third day, two peo­ple died as well, and the riots spread fur­ther across the United Kingdom to large pop­u­la­tion areas includ­ing Birmingham, Nottingham, and Leicester. So this is real­ly spread­ing like wild­fire on day three.

On day four, things both esca­lat­ed fur­ther in the North of England, so riot­ing spread to Salford and Manchester where I live, but also because so much police was draft­ed in to London in par­tic­u­lar, there were very few inci­dents in the cap­i­tal on that fourth day. In Birmingham, how­ev­er, one of the worst events with­in that very short four-day peri­od took place when three young Muslim men who were pro­tect­ing prop­er­ty were killed by a car, a per­son dri­ving delib­er­ate­ly into that crowd. Those of you who fol­lowed this news on the inter­na­tion­al media or Twitter, will all remem­ber the father of one of these young men who real­ly stood out for his enor­mous strength of char­ac­ter for speak­ing against peo­ple retal­i­at­ing the death of his son.

So what as going on? Why were peo­ple doing this? It spread like wild­fire and nobody real­ly had an answer, except a politi­cian said well, the answer is sim­ple. This is crim­i­nal­i­ty pure and sim­ple. We don’t need to real­ly under­stand what’s going on here. This is just peo­ple being crim­i­nals and loot­ing on a mass scale. So we weren’t encour­age to think of any pos­si­ble links for what might have caused the riots. So no links to pover­ty, no link to lack of edu­ca­tion or social upward mobil­i­ty, and cer­tain­ly we must­n’t think at all that this has some­thing to do with the eco­nom­ic cri­sis. So what the gov­ern­ment very strong­ly said is that there is no need for an inquiry. It was a sort of let’s move a long, noth­ing to see here.”

Now, one of the things that was hap­pen­ing at the time is that one of the accu­sa­tions that was being made, or that was being prof­fered by peo­ple who made sort of snap, knee-jerk respons­es to what was going on is that social media is being blamed. Social media was blamed for the worst civ­il unrest that England had seen in recent years. 

And what was hap­pen­ing is that the three key plat­forms that were being blamed were Blackberry Messenger, which we lat­er found out played a very very sig­nif­i­cant role in terms of being a closed net­work, in terms of being a very cheap tech­nol­o­gy that par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple from socially-deprived, economically-deprived back­grounds could access. So a Blackberry hand­set is only about £40. You can have free mes­sag­ing capac­i­ty for about £5 a month. So this was real­ly being used. But on the pile was being thrown Facebook and Twitter as being blamed for these unrests.

whether it would be right to stop peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ing via these web­sites and ser­vices when we know they are plot­ting vio­lence, dis­or­der and criminality.
David Cameron, PM state­ment on dis­or­der in England, August 112011

[On the riots:] struck by how they were orga­nized via social media.
David Cameron


So who were the accusers? The usu­al sus­pects. The politi­cians. David Cameron was dis­cussing whether or not peo­ple should be banned from using some of these plat­forms if they had been found guilty of using it for riot­ing pur­pos­es. And more wor­ry­ing­ly, Louise Mensch, a Conservative MP, start­ed mak­ing nois­es that were very very trou­bling. She was start­ing to say that social media might have to be switched off dur­ing the riots or dur­ing future events of this nature. So we have these politi­cians say­ing evil Egyptian dic­ta­tors switch­ing off the Internet very bad, but if we have to switch off social media for very legit­i­mate rea­sons, then there’s no prob­lem here.

People were get­ting arrest­ed for post­ing cer­tain mes­sages on Facebook. And one of the things that was hap­pen­ing is the arrests were swift, the sen­tenc­ing was extreme­ly swift and very very harsh. This is some­one who got four years for post­ing mes­sages on Facebook, and this is one of the cas­es that real­ly got a lot of media atten­tion. These are two young men who post­ed a mes­sage on Facebook try­ing to orga­nize a riot in a rel­a­tive­ly small city in the United Kingdom, Northwich. And two things hap­pened. One, they were very unsuc­cess­ful; nobody respond­ed and nobody showed up. Except that some­body did show up: the police, to arrest them, and they got four years. They appealed their sen­tence, but the appeal was denied.

There were many peo­ple defend­ing the riots on social media, say­ing the riots were not caused by social media. And one of the most inter­est­ing, I think, defend­ers of social media was actu­al­ly the police, as well as many oth­ers. They argued that it was a vital plat­form for com­mu­ni­ca­tion for them, in the sense that it allowed them to debunk rumors. It allowed them to reas­sure peo­ple, through this mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form. And they felt that it was over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive for them to still have access to social media, par­tic­u­lar­ly Twitter. This quote is from the Greater Manchester Police. The Greater Manchester Police is very forward-thinking in terms of their social media use, and so they were very out­spo­ken about defend­ing it. 

Now, the gen­er­al pub­lic, on the oth­er hand, very much was in line with what the politi­cians were say­ing. This is a poll that The Guardian con­duct­ed of about a thou­sand peo­ple, where 70% say­ing yes we agree that dur­ing these very par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances, BBM, Facebook, and Twitter might have to be switched off.

The biggest sup­port for switch­ing off came from peo­ple who weren’t typ­i­cal­ly using these plat­forms. So that came from peo­ple over 65. But I think it’s real­ly worth remem­ber­ing that there is a gen­er­al pub­lic out there that was very sup­port­ive of these mea­sures, and so this is worth bear­ing in mind.

Now, in terms of there not being an inquiry, The Guardian news­pa­per said this isn’t good enough. We need to hold the gov­ern­ment to account and we need to find out what hap­pened here. So they set about set­ting up this ground­break­ing study called Reading the Riots, which is a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the London School of Economics, fund­ed by two dif­fer­ent fund­ing coun­cils. Our project is part of this, where we looked at Twitter and par­tic­u­lar­ly what role did social media actu­al­ly play in this.

So Twitter was of course very inter­est­ed in find­ing out, because they were being accused of some­thing they felt they had­n’t played any part in, their plat­form had­n’t been used in this way. And so they donat­ed a cor­pus of 2.6 mil­lion tweets tweet­ed over that four-day peri­od by 700,000 indi­vid­ual users. And what we looked at is the role of rumors. We looked at whether or not incite­ment actu­al­ly took place on Twitter. And we want­ed to look at the ways in which dif­fer­ent users had come to promi­nence and were using the platform.

The Guardian, How riot rumours spread on Twitter [inter­ac­tive charts non-functional]

The Guardian pro­duced a very ear­ly visu­al­iza­tion of the dif­fer­ent hash­tags that peo­ple were using. And what you see is that peo­ple were using a local­ized ver­sion of the riot hash­tag. So the first peak is in Tottenham, then we move on to Enfield. And what hap­pens on day three is that the riot cleanup hash­tag real­ly spikes all of a sud­den. It’s the black line. We cal­cu­lat­ed that this was seen by poten­tial­ly sev­en mil­lion users at the time. And the Riot Clean Up account was set up in response to peo­ple try­ing to do some­thing about this in their own com­mu­ni­ty, so peo­ple going out in the street the next morn­ings and clean­ing up the mess. This account, with­in a few hours, got over 60,000 fol­low­ers. Then the final peak is when the riots came to Manchester and the local hash­tag for Manchester start­ed to become quite big.

One of the things we looked at was the role of rumors, and for those of you who know, there were some real­ly out­landish rumors fly­ing around at the time, includ­ing that ani­mals had been released from the London Zoo; that riot­ers were fry­ing their own food at McDdonalds; that a girl had been beat­en up at the start of the riots by the police (This actu­al­ly hap­pened.); that the London Eye was on fire and had some­how mirac­u­lous­ly been pushed over by the riot­ers; that the Birmingham Children’s Hospital was under attack from riot­ers’ that tanks had rolled into parts of London (This is actu­al­ly a tank from Tahrir Square.); and that Miss Selfridge, a clothes shop in Manchester had been set on fire by the riot­ers, which actu­al­ly also happened.

So some of these rumors turned out to be true. The rumor that I want to look at is ani­mals being released from the zoo. What we did here is we cod­ed this sort of mini cor­pus, this mini dataset of rumors. And one of the things we were inter­est­ed in is the kind of infor­ma­tion that peo­ple were dis­trib­ut­ing about this par­tic­u­lar rumor. 

What we divid­ed it into is the green dot. And I’m going to play you the time sequence of the rumor. The green dots are peo­ple sim­ply repeat­ing the rumor: peo­ple sim­ply mak­ing the claim tigers have been released.” The red dots show counter-claims: that’s not hap­pen­ing, peo­ple might give rea­sons. Yellow dots show that peo­ple are ask­ing ques­tions: have tigers been released? Is this true? And then peo­ple also start commenting.

So this rumor plays out over a four-hour peri­od, and what you see is that in the first instance, peo­ple sim­ply repeat the claim and also ask, Is this true? Is this hap­pen­ing?” So we see this claim being repeat­ed, and the size of the bub­bles denote that they are repeat­ed more often. But what you start see­ing an hour or so in is that there are some small red bub­bles that start to emerge, and peo­ple are start­ing to say, This isn’t true.” And what is inter­est­ing is that peo­ple are start­ing to offer infor­ma­tion about why it’s not true. So what you see is that peo­ple say, Hang on, that’s the tiger that escaped from the zoo in Italy in 2008. It’s a case of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. It’s not London.”

But what is inter­est­ing to us is that when that kind of infor­ma­tion is being dis­trib­uted, you see a lot of red bub­bles, a lot of counter-claims, and then all of a sud­den they sort of start to dis­ap­pear and a lot of green bub­bles start to take over again and the rumor essen­tial­ly starts to repro­duce itself. So the claims that peo­ple are mak­ing again lat­er on in the cycle, sort of towards the end tail of the rumor, are sim­ply repeat­ing the same claim again. What that real­ly remind­ed us of is that peo­ple of course have par­tic­u­lar net­works on Twitter. We don’t see every­thing. We see who we are con­nect­ed to, and so many steps fur­ther. So what we think hap­pened here is that new peo­ple log on, say, Oh my god tigers have been released, quick, retweet retweet retweet,” and the thing starts repeat­ing itself until it’s fin­ished and the rumor dies.

Now, although we did­n’t find any evi­dence of incite­ment, what we did find (and I think this is rather wor­ry­ing) is that when the cov­er­age of the rumor work was in The Guardian and also when the visu­al­iza­tion came online, peo­ple start­ed using the project hash­tag to cel­e­brate that they had start­ed the rumor. So peo­ple were say­ing, It was me. I said that about the tigers,” and it made me very ner­vous about in future sit­u­a­tions if peo­ple might actu­al­ly start com­pet­ing to get the best rumor adopt­ed, or to get the best rumor picked up by some gullible researchers.

The oth­er thing that we found was an enor­mous vit­ri­ol against loot­ers. So, on the one hand we found no evi­dence of incite­ment, but what we did find is just an enor­mous sense of hatred and very explic­it state­ments about what these peo­ple would do to the loot­ers. I think there’s a real prob­lem with this, that on the one hand Twitter was being cel­e­brat­ed as it was main­ly used for pos­i­tive pur­pos­es, but there was a very dark side to some of that com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well.

We looked at who actu­al­ly tweet­ed the riots. So in terms of the 700,000 users, this is the top ten in terms of most men­tions. So this isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly how often peo­ple them­selves were tweet­ing, but how often their accounts were retweet­ed, or how often that account was men­tioned. And what you see is that again the Riot Cleanup account has over 40,000 men­tions. So this is real­ly clear­ly a very very impor­tant account dur­ing the time of the riots. We see a lot of main­stream media in there, and we see #2 Paul Lewis, the Guardian jour­nal­ist who real­ly was the key jour­nal­ist in tweet­ing the riots and using social media as a plat­form for gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion and so on. But we also see ordi­nary cit­i­zens in there. #8 is @lawcol888, who I’ll come back to, and we see the Greater Manchester Police at the end.

Now, Pierre, I offer my sin­cere apolo­gies for this bar chart. We also built a typol­o­gy of twen­ty dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories for how we could think about these users as groups. And one of the things that was very clear to us is that the main­stream media is real­ly the most dominantly-cited group of accounts, fol­lowed by jour­nal­ist. So main­stream media jour­nal­ists were real­ly all over Twitter. This is also linked, of course, to how often they are being cit­ed, so there’s a lot of rep­e­ti­tion in there.

The oth­er account that I want to draw your atten­tion to is the third most men­tioned cat­e­go­ry, and that’s riot accounts. One of the things that you often see in moments of cri­sis is that cer­tain web sites or cer­tain users will start curat­ing an aggre­gat­ing news and fil­ter­ing news for the spe­cif­ic pur­pose of mak­ing it easy for peo­ple to find infor­ma­tion about the riots. And of course a lot of these riot accounts were also riot cleanup accounts. So a lot of the riot cleanup in there. Right at the end, cat­e­go­ry 19, is spoof accounts, and I will come back to that. There were a lot of spoof accounts as well that were tweet­ing the riots. 

So just to sum­ma­rize, we found a lot of main­stream media, a lot of jour­nal­ists, Riot Cleanup was the most-mentioned indi­vid­ual account. But I want to also focus on the role of the emer­gency ser­vices, and just to high­light that Twitter was being used by lots of dif­fer­ent users for lots and lots of dif­fer­ent rea­sons. So peo­ple were orga­niz­ing, peo­ple were broad­cast­ing, peo­ple were col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion, peo­ple were voic­ing opin­ion. This is for exam­ple Lawcol’s broom army pho­to­graph that went viral.

A large crowd of people standing in the street holding brooms in the air, bristles up.

But what I want to move to next is peo­ple humor­ing the riots, and peo­ple satir­ing riot­ers, the riots them­selves. And what we found is that in our top 200 most-cited accounts, we have these three mas­sive spoof accounts that col­lec­tive­ly are men­tioned over 18,000 times.

So what is The Dark Lord, Lord Voldemort, doing at #13, hav­ing near­ly 7,000 men­tions in terms of his com­men­tary on the riots? His sometimes-sidekick Professor Snape is in there. And of course the Queen. So what we see is a very British fla­vor in terms of satire and the way in which these spoof accounts were tweet­ing and com­ment­ing on the riots. We saw a lot of satir­i­cal com­ments com­ment­ing on the social sit­u­a­tion at the time. So there was a lot of com­men­tary on the Hackgate scan­dal, on Rupert Murdoch, on News International. And so one of the things that we found repeat­ed­ly, time and time again, in lots of dif­fer­ent ver­sions, is peo­ple say­ing, What is the media say­ing? What is the police say­ing? You can’t get into Blackberry Messenger. Just ask some jour­nal­ist from News International, why are you wast­ing your time?” So there were a lot of crossover com­ments about Hackgate and about what was going on with News International.

Finally, we found peo­ple upload­ing images of them plank­ing in the riots. Planking was a craze that may or may not have tak­en off in Switzerland where peo­ple basi­cal­ly lie flat on dif­fer­ent sur­faces. This is a plank­ing image from the Manchester riots. [slide not shown]

So just to reach my con­clu­sions now, I think in terms of the dataset we have, we have a unique dataset here. I think we need to under­stand a lot more about the spe­cif­ic con­text, also the local con­text with­in which this infor­ma­tion may have had a par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance. The rise of the indi­vid­ual I think is real­ly inter­est­ing here, and var­i­ous oth­er com­men­ta­tors have report­ed this. We need to bet­ter under­stand how rumors can be con­tained, how infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted dur­ing cri­sis moments. And one of the key things is, I think, the role of the police, not just dur­ing crises but also dur­ing every­day situations.

In terms of pre­dic­tions, Twitter is also a lis­ten­ing plat­form. 40% of Twitter users are inac­tive, they lis­ten. What hap­pens dur­ing cri­sis moments? Are peo­ple more active­ly lis­ten­ing? I think we need to under­stand this. How can the role of the police be improved, and what is the down­side of that? What is the down­side of the police being on Twitter more dom­i­nant­ly? And how can we build fur­ther teams across dis­ci­plines, but also across sec­tors, to be able to respond to these kinds of events more rapid­ly and offer deep analy­sis, and where would this move next? Where will cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion move next? What is going to be the next plat­form? Is it going to be livestream­ing? And these are all the things that we’re very inter­est­ed in explor­ing further.

Thank you.

Introducer: Thank you Farida. It’s quite inter­est­ing. Basically what hap­pened is the oppo­site of what has been report­ed ear­ly on by the media. So there was no inci­ta­tion to vio­lence. People were most­ly against the loot­ers. I just want­ed to explain if some­body is not famil­iar with Twitter, a hash­tag is a code that starts with the hash sign that you put in your mes­sage, which means I’m talk­ing about this par­tic­u­lar top­ic.” So you guys could fol­low the tweets that were men­tion­ing riot cleanup, which was peo­ple talk­ing about this top­ic of clean­ing up the riots.

We had ques­tions com­ing up, and some­body was won­der­ing is there a way to legal­ly pun­ish peo­ple who start the rumors? Is there a way to pres­sure them?

Farida Vis: Well, I mean I’m no legal expert, but I think the fact that peo­ple were being sent to jail for four years over post­ing an unsuc­cess­ful mes­sage on Facebook cer­tain­ly raised a lot of very seri­ous ques­tions. I’m not famil­iar with the legal aspects of what hap­pens to peo­ple when they say cer­tain things on Twitter. But what I was cer­tain­ly struck by was that there was a focus on incite­ment, did it hap­pen or not, and there was­n’t a focus on the vit­ri­ol and the way in which peo­ple were using very very ugly lan­guage to sug­gest we’ll just shoot these riot­ers on sight; why don’t we set fire to them.”

Introducer: That was actu­al­ly one of your find­ings. The vio­lence was against the looters.

Vis: Against the riot­ers and very very aggres­sive­ly and explic­it­ly so, what peo­ple sug­gest­ed should hap­pen to them.

Introducer: A ques­tion. Why do we always want to cut Twitter or Facebook? Why does nobody want to cut the mobile phones or SMS?

Vis: Well, in this case it would’ve pre­vent­ed a lot of problems. 

Introducer: Why is it always the new tech­nol­o­gy we blame for everything?

Vis: It’s the shock of the new. It’s the shock of the unex­plained, of the unknown, and the imag­i­na­tion that I think turns it into the next boogey­man. And so I think I did­n’t speak about YouTube, but YouTube is anoth­er one that’s often linked as a hotbed to extrem­ism and so on, and there is no real empir­i­cal evi­dence to sug­gest that this plays this role. It’s just I think in pol­i­cy domains, there’s this imag­i­na­tion about what social media is capa­ble of or what it’s actu­al­ly doing

Introducer: What will hap­pen in the next cri­sis? Do you think David Cameron will think twice before ask­ing to cut Twitter, or that MP? Or do you think that it was a learn­ing expe­ri­ence for the whole coun­try, and the next answer is going to be smarter? Or do you think actu­al­ly it’s real­ly two worlds that are divid­ing and not com­ing together?

Vis: I think it was a very steep learn­ing curve, also for us as an aca­d­e­m­ic team. But I think what hap­pened in that moment was that every­one was real­ly real­ly will­ing to learn and do kind of scary stuff. So to work with Twitter and The Guardian, and then a team of aca­d­e­mics, I think in that inno­va­tion some­thing else hap­pened that now means that we’re work­ing with the police, we’re advis­ing on their social media strat­e­gy, we’re work­ing with dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment agen­cies advis­ing them on their social media strat­e­gy. And so I think what peo­ple are real­ly aware of is that this thing, social media, is not going to go away. Twitter is not going to go away. It might go the way of MySpace at some point, but there will be a new ver­sion, there will be a new thing. And so one of the things I was real­ly struck by is that the police is very inter­est­ed in well, how could we use this effec­tive­ly dur­ing the next mega-event that’s going to gen­er­ate a lot of tweets? And that’s of course the Olympics. So that will be the next mega-event that we’ll be look­ing at.

Introducer: Maybe to make them feel bet­ter you can tell them about Anaïs’ point that social media were invent­ed in 1634.

Vis: I know. I will put them in touch with Anaïs.

Introducer: Thank you very much. Farida Vis.

Vis: Thank you.

Further Reference

Presentation descrip­tion [Wayback] at the Lift con­fer­ence site, and at their video archive.

Farida’s slides for this presentation.