[iDC] Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, “Blackberry Mobs” and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism

Christian Fuchs christian.fuchs at uti.at
Wed Aug 10 14:07:38 UTC 2011

Social Media and the UK Riots: “Twitter Mobs”, “Facebook Mobs”, 
“Blackberry Mobs” and the Structural Violence of Neoliberalism
A blog post on the role of social media in the UK riots by Christian Fuchs

“One formula [...] can be that of the mob: gullible, fickle, herdlike, 
low in taste and habit. [...] If [...] our purpsoe is manipulation – the 
persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, known in 
certain ways – the convenient formula will be that of the masses”. — 
Raymond Williams

“What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is 
true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism 
on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social 
warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal 
plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so 
openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social 
state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder 
that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together”. This passage could be 
a description of the social conditions in the United Kingdom today. It 
is, however, a passage from Friedrich Engels’ report about the “Working 
Class in England”, published in 1845.

In his book “Folk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972, 
Stanley Cohen shows how public discourse tends to blame media and 
popular culture for triggering, causing or stimulating violence. “There 
is a long history of moral panics about the alleged harmful effects of 
exposure to popular media and cultural forms – comics and cartoons, 
popular theatre, cinema, rock music, video nasties, computer games, 
internet porn” – and, one should add today, social media. “For 
conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities 
and undermine moral authority; for liberals the media exaggerate the 
risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and 
authoritarian crime control policy” (Cohen, Stanley. 1972/2002. Folk 
devils and moral panics. Oxon: Routledge. Third edition. page xvii).

The shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police on August 4th 2011 in 
Tottenham triggered riots in London areas such as Tottenham, Wood Green, 
Enfield Town, Ponders End, Brixton, Walthamstow, Walthamstow Central, 
Chingford Mount, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing and in other UK areas such as 
Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), St. Ann’s (Nottingham), 
West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Salford, or Central Manchester.

Parts of the mass media started blaming social media for being the cause 
of the violence. The Sun reported on August 8th: “Rioting thugs use 
Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store raids. [...] THUGS used 
social network Twitter to orchestrate the Tottenham violence and incite 
others to join in as they sent messages urging: ’Roll up and loot’“. 
The Telegraph wrote on the same day: “How technology fuelled Britain’s 
first 21st century riot. The Tottenham riots were orchestrated by 
teenage gang members, who used the latest mobile phone technology to 
incite and film the looting and violence. Gang members used Blackberry 
smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying 
executives to organise the mayhem”. The Daily Mail wrote on August 7th 
that there are “fears that violence was fanned by Twitter as picture of 
burning police car was re-tweeted more than 100 times”.

Even the BBC took up the social media panic discourse on August 9th and 
reported about the power of social media to bring together not only 
five, but 200 people for forming a rioting “mob”. Media and politicians 
created the impression that the riots were orchestrated by “Twitter 
mobs” and “Blackberry mobs”.

And also, as usual in moral panics, the call for policing technology 
could be heard. The Daily Express (August 10th, 2011) wrote: ”Thugs and 
looters are thought to have sent messages via the BlackBerry Messenger 
(BBM) service to other troublemakers, alerting them to riot scenes and 
inciting further violence. Technology writer Mike Butcher said it was 
unbelievable the service had not already been shut down. He said: 
’Mobile phones have become weaponised. It’s like text messaging with 
steroids – you can send messages to hundreds of people that cannot be 
traced back to you.’ Tottenham MP David Lammy appealed for BlackBerry to 
suspend the service“. The police published pictures of rioters recorded 
by CCTV and asked the public to identify the people. The mass media 
published these pictures. The Sun called for “naming and shaming a 
rioter” and for “shopping a moron”. The mass media also reported about 
citizens, who self-organized over social media in order to gather in 
affected neighbourhoods for cleaning the streets.

Blaming technology or popular culture for violence – the Daily Mirror 
blamed “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which 
glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but 
including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs“ for 
the riots – is an old and typical ideology that avoids engaging with the 
real societal causes of riots and unrest and promises easy solutions: 
policing, control of technology, surveillance. It neglects the 
structural causes of riots and how violence is built into contemporary 
societies. Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is 
the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a 
situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is 
also an expression of fear. It projects society’s guilt and shame into 
objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in 
the fetishism of things. Social media and technology-centrism, both in 
its optimistic form (“social media will help our communities to overcome 
the riots”, “social media and mobile phones should be surveilled by the 
police”, “Blackberrys should be forbidden”, “more CCTV surveillance is 
needed”, “CCTV will help us find and imprison all rioters”) and its 
pessimistic form (“social media triggered, caused, stimulated, boosted, 
orchestrated, organized or fanned violence”), is a techno-deterministic 
ideology that subsitutes thinking about society by the focus on 
technology. Societal problems are reduced to the level of technology.

Let’s talk about the society, in which these riots have taken place. Is 
it really a surprise that riots emerged in the UK,  a country with high 
socio-economic inequality and youth unemployment, in a situation of 
global economic crisis? The United Kingdom has a high level of income 
inequality, its Gini level was 32.4 in 2009 (0 means absolute equality, 
100 absolute inequality), a level that is only topped by a few countries 
in Europe and that is comparable to the level of Greece (33.1) (data 
source: Eurostat). 17.3% of the UK population had a risk of living in 
poverty in 2009 (data source: Eurostat). In early 2011, the youth 
unemployment rate in the UK rose to 20.3%, the highest level since these 
statistics started being recorded in 1992.

The UK is not only one of the most advanced developed countries today in 
economic temrs, it is at the same time a developing country in social 
terms with a lot of structurally deprived areas. Is it a surprise that 
riots erupted especially in East London, the West Midlands and Greater 
Manchester?  The UK Department of Communities and Local Government 
reported in its analysis “The English Indices of Deprivation 2010”: 
“Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, the City of 
Kingston-upon Hull, Hackney and Tower Hamlets are the local authorities 
with the highest proportion of LSOAs amongst the most deprived in 
England. [...] The north east quarter of London, particularly Newham, 
Hackney and Tower Hamlets continue to exhibit very high levels of 
deprivation“ (pages 1, 3). Decades of UK capitalist development shaped 
by deindustrialization and neoliberalism have had effects on the 
creation, intensification and extension of precariousness and deprivation.

Calls for more police, surveillance, crowd control and the blames of 
popular culture and social media are helpless. It is too late once riots 
erupt. One should not blame social media or popular culture, but the 
violent conditions of society for the UK riots. The mass media’s and 
politics’ focus on surveillance, law and order politics and the 
condemnation of social media will not solve the problems. A serious 
discussion about class, inequality and racism is needed, which also 
requires a change of policy regimes. The UK riots are not a “Blackberry 
mob”, not a “Facebook mob” and not a “Twitter mob”; they are the effects 
of the structure violence of neoliberalism. Capitalism, crisis and class 
are the main contexts of unrests, uproars and social media today.

Prof. Christian Fuchs
Chair in Media and Communication Studies
Department of Informatics and Media
Uppsala University
Kyrkogårdsgatan 10
Box 513
751 20 Uppsala
christian.fuchs at im.uu.se
Tel +46 (0) 18 471 1019
NetPolitics Blog: http://fuchs.uti.at/blog
Editor of tripleC: http://www.triple-c.se
Book "Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies" (Routledge 
Book "Internet and Society" (Paperback, Routledge 2010)

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