Social Media & Social Unrest

John Hope-Johnstone

First of all I want to say that I have no authority to write this blog except hours of watching YouTube videos of the Arab uprisings and now the U.K.
riots looking for trends. Notice the difference in terms (uprisings/riots). I do lecture on social media but I am
not an expert on terrorism.

What has happened in the Arab world is an uprising against unjust dictators. What is happening in the U.K is not an uprising it is a series of flash riots by hooligans.

What some people are now calling “The Arab Spring Syndrome”, seems to be an epidemic of social unrest whether legitimate (Arabs), or just drunken hoodies looking to fulfill voids in the emptiness of their lives (U.K.),  both have one thing in common…social media and mobile devices that speed up communications that can organize a flash riot.

If we watch the TV interviews and YouTube comments during the Arab
Spring, they seem very different in their demographics than the U.K rioters.
The first model (Egypt) were more educated, slightly older (although many young), and if not upper income, certainly more middle income.

In the U.K. the interviews have shown unemployed youths with no
particular agenda that they can articulate, other than the “fun” of
creating mayhem and getting back at “the man” and most importantly
robbing and looting.

Clapham Junction

While the term social media is being used extensively in this
debate, really the kind of flash riots seen in Great Britain are being
organized more through mobile texting than social media platforms such as facebook.

It has been reported that Blackberrie’s BBM (BlackBerry Messenger)
has been used (mainly from one picture of a rioter), which is a proprietary
Internet-based instant messenger application included on BlackBerry devices which allows messaging between BlackBerry users. It was developed by Research In Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry device (Canada). Exchanging messages is being used in private discussion or chat groups, which allow multiple BlackBerry devices to communicate in a single session and can spread news instantly.

Twitter could possibly be used with the use of hashtags, but it is too easily followed by the authorities.

In early August 2011, a similar event took place in San Francisco, where government officials shut down four cell locations along the BART public
transportation system in response to chatter about anarchist groups organizing
to protest the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by Bart Police on July 3rd.
The move effectively silenced the undergrounds’ subway cell service from 4 to 7
pm and the protest ultimately did not materialize. However, as retaliation the
group hacked the Bart database.

The question now is one of possible overreaction. Prime Minister David Cameron and British Members of Parliament have proposed possible new powers for police in terms of how they could limit or block social media from becoming a tool for organizing riots.

London the day after

However, the underground telegraph system has always been fast and nimble, from whispering to passing notes the word can spread like wildfire long
before cell phones, as I am sure Marie Antoinette found to her dismay.

Blanket shutting down of social media platforms or IM platforms, merely legitimizes those rioters that are just anti-everything and gives them credence about an Orwellian big brother Government.

Bringing in the troops, which has also been mentioned but smacks of
the very dictatorships we are against and how they handle political unrest.

Giving police the knowledge to beat the rioters at their own game of social media, by putting out disinformation to confuse their efforts via social media, would be far more effective.

Also giving the police the ability, with mobile black-out units, to create limited dead zones in certain areas where cell and Wi-Fi become unavailable is an option.

Basically, it is going to be a modern war of wits as to who can out tech the other, the hoodies or the authorities.

While all this is going on. Sociologists and researchers need to find out why in so many societies including America, have become so polarized.

After the last Congressional debacle over raising the debt ceiling. Congressmen and women went back to their constituents and according to reports,
(if they were accurate), where told to “fight harder for what your party
stands for” by their voters. This sounds like a country very divided and not in the mood for any kind of reconciliation.

In the U.K., good citizens are rising up to protect their property and their families. Even though sadly, three young men have been killed protecting
their community by thugs. This is the way a society shows that it is “we
the people” who govern a country not thugs.

Could it be the polarization of wealth into the hands of a few, after
the collapse of the Industrial era and the breaking apart of the middle class could be a root cause for all this polarization?

Your considered comments are, as always, appreciated.



  1. Many thanks for mentioning the use of Blackberries, as it helps put the discussion on the technology/ability in general, and less just on those Social Media tools popular with “the masses” (Twitter, Facebook).

    I also like the phrase “Flash Riot” as I am afraid the association of “Flash Mob” with these attacks poorly paints a lot of good work done in the public sphere. Unfortunately, the “mob” part may no longer be helpful.

    As you analysis indicates, the real issue are the greater movements within our countries and lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: