Three-D Issue 18: Reading the riots on Twitter

Farida Vis
University of Leicester

When the UK was hit by a wave of riots last summer, the government was quick to suggest that they were categorically not linked to poverty, lack of social mobility, the economic crisis, cuts to education, but rather that those who looted were simply criminals. Moreover, the Prime Minister along with leading conservative politicians blamed social media for having caused the riots, singling out Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM). In the swift arrests and harsh sentencing that followed some received extensive jail sentences for posting incitement messages on Facebook. Calls to riot, to which, in at least one example only the police had responded only to promptly arrest the would-be Facebook rioters. Although it became quickly clear that BBM was the main communication technology involved in spreading incitement messages, due to the nature of its closed network, allowing users to send free, secure ‘broadcasts’, which can quickly spread, social media were collectively blamed. There were even calls to temporarily shut platforms down.

Because the government did not launch an inquiry, The Guardian, in collaboration with the London School of Economics, set up the Reading the Riots project, and in the first phase carried out extensive interviews with those directly involved in the riots. The study is modeled on Philip Meyer’s groundbreaking work at the Detroit Free Press, set up in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, using surveys and computer assisted reporting to show that those that had attended college were equally likely to have rioted compared to high school dropouts. Results from the Reading the Riots project were published in The Guardian during six days of intense coverage in early December and culminated in a conference, which presented the results of the study. The full report that can be downloaded from the website.

As part of the project Twitter had donated a corpus of 2.6 million riot tweets for the newspaper to study, which became part of ‘Reading the Riots on Twitter’ (funded by JISC), in which a second interdisciplinary academic team, led by Professor Rob Procter at the University of Manchester, worked closely with the paper to better understand the role of social media. The Guardian itself had extensively used Twitter in its reporting during the riots and its Special Projects Editor, Paul Lewis, is the second most mentioned Twitter user in the riots corpus (30,031 mentions).

The main aim of this social media work was to see how rumours circulate on Twitter, the function different users/actors have in propagating and spreading information flows, in addition to establishing whether the platform was used to incite as well as examining other forms of organization. Seven different rumours that circulated at the time, including the setting on fire of the London Eye, the release of tigers from the London Zoo, and the police beating up a 16-year old girl, were agreed with the paper for further analysis. We then collected all data related to each rumour and devised a coding schedule that coded the tweet according to four main codes: where people repeated the rumour (making a claim), rejected it (making a counter claim), questioned it (query) or simply commented (comment). All tweets were coded in triplicate and the Guardian Interactive Team animated the results, which can be found on the Reading the Riots site. The visualization highlights the viral nature of rumours and shows how their life cycle plays out over time. The role of the mainstream media is evident in some of these rumours (for example outright debunking them, or indeed confirming them and turning them into news), as is the corrective nature of Twitter itself.

We found little evidence of incitement, but rather that Twitter had been used extensively to organize the riot cleanups. We did find serious vitriol directed against the looters however, which we are examining as part of the second phase of our project. We are also further examining the different agents involved in tweeting the riots. We found the mainstream media was by far the most mentioned and most involved in tweeting the riots, although often seen as lagging behind compared to social media reporting. What is more, we singled out the limited role of the emergency services and highlighted the potential for emergency services like the police to make better use of social media during crisis situations in terms of broadcasting up to date information and debunking rumours.

Work of this nature raises a series of important issues and challenges for Media Studies, a central one concerning methods and the interdisciplinary nature of the project team required to carry out such work. The computational infrastructure and tools increasingly needed to deal with ‘Big Data’ is one that requires scholars interested in studying such material to forge collaborations with those with the computational expertise. A project of this nature also raises concerns over ‘access’, not only the tools and expertise to study such material, but gaining access to the material in the first place. Moreover, the ethics of such work along with the increasing hopes pinned on what ‘Big Data’ might tell us about society requires extensive debate and consideration. Whilst these are exciting and interesting times we must work hard to develop critical methodological and theoretical approaches to these challenges. Media Studies has much to contribute here, but it is imperative that we share resources, compare and learn new methodological approaches, engage in international comparisons, and most importantly teach our students these skills too. We are currently engaging actively with these issues and are working hard to share the tools we built for the project with the wider research community.

Farida Vis was lead social media researcher on the ‘Reading the Riots on Twitter’ project. She is currently completing a textbook for Sage, Researching Social Media (with Mike Thelwall). She has written more extensively on the riots work on
and tweets as @flygirltwo.

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