Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Media and Riots - a social response

November 2011

November 2011 Media and the Riots Conference / How did the media cover the riots?

We are all familiar with social media: A ‘hot topic' given today's event that seems to add to public relevance as much as it takes away from it. Now a constant factor in everyday life various aspects have become mundane, if not immediately recognisable. Take for example, Phillip Burgess, 22 years young from Salford who was sentenced on 28th October this year for ‘inciting violence during the Manchester riots', or ‘A Teenager' 17 years young, and too young to be named as he is a youth offender, who posted a Facebook message saying ‘come on rioters' and has since been banned from SNSs for 12 months.

A number of people have posted, tagged, commented and interacted with earlier currents of the debates that we are involved with today. I have tried to take account of some of the ‘uproar' that has been raised so far as it has been within any one person's capacity to do so.

Important considerations

At this one-day Media and Riots event we seek to draw attention to not just the broadcast media, nor the rioters, but to the social elements as practitioners, reporters and participants who have dared enough to join in the various conversations.

One resource upon which I, and others, have drawn extensively is social media. Either scorned or celebrated by many in academic circles and amongst the media and public, social media has offered insights that have previously been unavailable elsewhere. In acknowledging our latest debates I choose to stay deliberately as close to these social outputs as possible.

Do not send an update until XX/XX/XXXX

Given its apparent freedom, social media now continually features in the public domain and moreover can speak the language of revolution as well as crime. Over the past few months an Arab Spring has been forged; and revolutionary hopes have become associated with social media that has been used by protesters for whom it represents a potential realm of freedom of speech unsullied by the limits of law and order and political restrictions. Or is this so?... To return to my opening remarks - we are here today because of social actions that have become known as ‘the riots' and are now linked to images of more or less petty crimes that lack any overt political purpose.

Request requirements

Let us question how we should interpret the role of social media in shaping human action. In the run up to this event and talking with our organiser Marc Wadsworth, I was reminded of a quote by the American commentator Rush Limbaugh talking about Los Angeles riots in 1991 and the police brutality Rodney Glen King received when LAPD officers repeatedly struck him, Limbaugh stated; "The Los Angeles riots were not caused by the Rodney King verdict. The Los Angeles riots were caused by rioters." Despite the sullied reputation of some of the individuals like Phillip Burgess and A Teenager who both had previous criminal records we can state that the UK riots were not caused by social media. The UK riots were caused by rioters or perhaps by the happenstance of opportunity of our society that values people through their possession of such objects as designer trainers and flat screen TVs .

On Tuesday 9th August the violence spread to the City Centre and to other areas. More vehicles were torched, commercial premises were damaged by fire and shops were looted. Several groups were involved. Many wore masks to obstruct identification; many were armed with weapons; missiles were thrown at police officers seeking to calm the situation.

In the result:

a. Over 20 cars were destroyed or damaged by fire;

b. Clarendon College was damaged by fire;

c. The roof of the Girls' High School was taken over by a group who used it to throw missiles from;

d. Two shops were looted;

e. Police officers were attacked with missiles;

f. Police stations were petrol bombed;

g. Significant police reinforcements had to be called in from other forces so that they were left under strength to deal with normal duties;

h. The additional police costs locally already exceed £1m so far: clearly that sum will increase over time.

Sentencing remarks - Nottingham, August 2011.

Facebook user information

For the first time in history we have access to 24hours streaming information that emanates from anyone who happens to have a smart phone, a social network and an opportunity - whether it was in Tottenham or Manchester earlier this year or Cario. I suggest we do not seek to analyse how far there is social media equality in political or media domains. We should have conversations about the social consequences and ‘social order' (or disorder) where individuals - ordinary people like you and I, going about their day-to-day lives - may become part of greater changes and actions that at the time or in retrospect are seen to have significance.

Ahmed PELLE is 18. He has a Facebook account with 2000 friends. On 3 occasions between Saturday 6th and Wednesday 10th August he posted three:

a. First, "Kill one black youth; we'll kill a million Fedz: riot till we own the cities."

b. His second was "Notts riot: who's on it?"

c. The third was "Rioting tonight; anyone want something from Flannels?"

Sentencing remarks, Manchester, August 2011.

This one-day event concerns essentially an exploration of the potentialities of the ‘social' in social media, Amed Pelle and others turn the relationship of the personal and private inside out, not by inciting ‘hate', but tripping over themselves and the consequences of being seen in an all too public domain. This has explosive consequences for pre-existing forms of law and order, and political power. There is an irony here, especially for those like Phillip Burgess, A Teenager, Amed Pelle and others who assumed that their social media was personal and private, instead the rise of social media promotes outlets that are VERY public.

The rise of social media provides a new setting for the restricted nature of private information. These are the characteristics of being ‘open', ‘social', ‘interactive', ‘in the moment', ‘personal', ‘adaptable', and ‘public'. Our user information has affected the aspirations of individuals and all our communicative opportunities. The ethos of social media has had a double impact upon our (and I appreciate I am speaking for everyone in this room) situation. On the one hand it has enabled us to ‘come together' - take Marc's planning and intentions for us today. On the other, however, social media can be seen as an active, if not radical, outlet with the rest of society...

...sometimes:

You went to the extent of posting a profile picture of boxes of Vans, Lacoste, Fred Perry and Adidas trainers intending people to believe you had looted them. You said later, which I fully accept, that you had purchased them legitimately out of your Job Seekers Allowance.

Extract from sentencing remarks: HH JUDGE MILMO QC, 2011.

Investigation details

Modern society is overt and fully drawn in the open. It is a new peppered history of the pursuits of the individual, but one that overlaps to their private and public selves. The ‘control' of social media is much more than an incidental feature of modern social life and as these controls break down (whether through riots etc.) we see the compulsive nature of the social in social media - and the declining control that generates a rising tide of personal information that may be held against us. At the moment, a social media abyss has opened up and one cannot say with any certainly how this may be bridged or will safeguard our information.

Yet the radicalising possibilities of the transformations bought about by social media are very real. Some have claimed that social media is not serious enough. Indeed much of it is and should be playful, fun and a trivial pursuit amongst friends. Seen, however, as a constant channel of personal ties and broadcast content it appears in a completely different and exciting light.

It was about this time that Sutcliffe (see paragraph 60 and following) used Facebook to construct a webpage called "The Warrington Riots".

Extract from R. v blackshawothers, 2011.

The ‘social' in social media implies a wholesale democratising of the interpersonal. But there are further implications. The transformation of content through social media might be a subversive influence upon society as a whole. For a social world in which ‘social' can become ‘the social' presents a very different landscape from that which we have previously come to know. The changes now affecting social media are indeed revolutionary, and may influence us in very profound ways.

Personal at play

We delight in the serendipity of social media. Play with the way that we can share events, places and people with friends and those we know, who may go on to share these updates with others who we don't and can't know. Perhaps it is this serendipitous nature of social media that is both seductive and dangerous. It seduces us, keeps up at night, and engages us with people and information with perhaps we should not. It is dangerous because it is too easy to forget that anything within social media is never really private, does not belong to us and can always be observed and tracked by those who we do not know and who we may be concerned about if we did.

In Manchester on 10th August, 2011 at Manchester City Magistrates Court an appellant was 24years young. He pleaded guilty to criminal damage. He also used Facebook.

The appellant was 24 years old. He had minor previous convictions without receiving a custodial sentence. He was employed as a caretaker, and had been living with his partner for 8 years. He had 2 children. With his father he ran a football club, the aim of which was to prevent problems arising in the community associated with boredom.

Extract from R. v blackshawothers, 2011.

Would it have made a difference if this 24-year old and his friends had not been on Facebook? - would some be blaming the riots on its use - would we be here talking about it?...

Over to you.

Sources of reference

R. v. blackshawothers, (18/10/2011). Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL, Neutral Citation Number: [2011] EWCA Crim 2312.

R.v.Ahmed Pelle, (25/08/2011). Judiciary of England and Wales, Nottingham Crown Court, HH Judge Milmo QC.

Facebook, (2010). Facebook Law Enforcement Guidelines. Facebook Inc. All rights reserved.

Carter, H. (2011). England riots: Pair jailed for four years for using Facebook to incite disorder. The Guardian. Online http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/uk-riots-four-years-disorder-facebook

Lewis, P. (2011). Reading the riots study to examine causes and effects of August unrest. The Guardian. Online http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/sep/05/reading-riots-study-guardian-lse

Blight, G. Burn-Murdoch, J., Ball, J. and McCormick, M. (2011). England riots: an interactive timeline. The Guardian. Online http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/interactive/2011/sep/05/england-riots-timeline-interactive