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Poking Insights: A very social riot

This month there has been a bit of discussion about the value of tools that measure individuals’ influence, and we will return to that (they aren’t very good – yet!) but instead thought we’d have a look at the much more topical issue of the UK’s recent civil disturbance. Much has been said about the role of social media and so this month’s Poking Insights is a bit longer as we range over how it was used before, during and after the rioting.

Much was made of Amazon’s league table of movers and shakers that showed huge increases in the sale of baseball bats in final days of the disturbances. This behavioural data adds a real-time insight into what is happening but it doesn’t tell us who is buying them, or why. And there are some oddities in there. On 10th August top of the list were folding shovels – sales up 132,000% in 24 hours! Maybe they were for burying the loot. What role do findings like these have on people: make them more fearful, prompt them to tool up themselves, cheerlead for vigilantism? Again, we don’t know unless we ask.

If that is what was going on during the event, it was Blackberries that dominated the beginning (some papers were even calling them the Twitter riots). The free and anonymous broadcast possibilities of BBM clearly helped to organise the law-breaking, with Twitter and facebook amplifying those messages. I guess it is inevitable that politicians call for censorship but the problem is people, not technology.

We’ve blogged here about how anonymity can prompt incredibly aggressive and disrespectful comments online but how much is this reactionary or trollist and how much a clearer expression of what people really think? My own view is that people moderate their opinions when they have an opportunity to take on the complexities of an issue – that can take a bit of time so there is a strong argument for decision-makers to hang fire before reacting to the vagaries of public opinion. While the mood for vengeance still appears high, I suspect that we will all be losers from the punitive sentences currently being handed down to people.

And a few words about the aftermath. As well as an evil, social media was heralded as a good with the sudden emergence of #riotcleanup and it would be fascinating to understand what is motivating so many to get involved. We also saw crowdsourcing of culprit identification and while many took photos of themselves looting, I bet we’ve had some mass deletions of those in the last few days.

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