Riots reflect social contexts and new media technologies

Posted on Tuesday 16th August 2011

The question of what caused the recent riots is a complex one, as Dr Dan Whisker says:

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint a single cause. If you think back a few months ago, to what happened in Vancouver in Canada, the local sports team there lost a big match and there were riots immediately afterwards. Now, of course, while losing at ice hockey might have been a trigger for those events, it can’t be described as a cause.”

Whatever the initial trigger, the events did not happen in a vacuum. Individual decisions to riot might be rational responses to the social context in which someone lives:  

“As with suicide bombers, the kamikaze or other behaviours which look insane or meaningless to outsiders, in fact, these riots are a social phenomenon. These rioters are certainly disconnected from mainstream society, but for them to feel that rioting is worth the risk of arrest and imprisonment, their actions need to receive approval within the subculture where they spend their lives. If all your friends are encouraging you to join them in a riot, then socially, you have far more to lose by refusing to participate through gaining a reputation for cowardice or disloyalty and if you never expect to have a fulfilling job anyway, then gaining a criminal record loses some of its deterrent power”

Questions about the role of the social media in the riot must not be reduced to one-dimensional searching for a cause. The shape of social interactions in the riot and the surveillance and penal response of the state are also conditioned by new media technologies. 

“As with the Vancouver sports riot, you can say that while social media aren’t a cause of rioting – most Britons have mobile phones by now – they might affect the shape of the disorder; how the rioters move around the city. The reverse also applies: the police can follow updates from rioters and members of the public on twitter, tumblr and other micro-media sites and use this to guide their response, though there’s a natural delay. Finally, of course, there is the question of self-surveilance. The records of those communications, the photographs and videos which those involved took, will end up as evidence in court. Photographing yourself stealing a computer is a good way to show off to your friends, but also a good way to send yourself to jail.”