Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Riots ain't so pretty when they're closer to home

Some interesting observations about the British riots and social media from John Hendrickson:
Unlike the Middle East uprisings earlier this year, the relationship between this week's riots in Britain and Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms is not entirely clear.
Follow the story on social media, and the rioting looks less like a direct response to a single shooting than an excuse for restless youth to act out during a time of summer vacation and unemployment — and to stay glued to their mobile phones.
I don't presume to be an expert on either the Arab Spring or the current rioting in Britain, but let me just suggest that the differences described above have more to do with the observer than with the participants.  For an English-speaking reporter in the States (and I'm not singling out Hendrickson here) trying to cover a riot in Egypt, it's much easier to fall back on a heuristic like "Young freedom-seekers rising up against an unjust tyrant," and to comb through the very small percentage of organizational speech conveyed in English tweets. The same reporter trying to understand events in Britain, however, has greater familiarity with the organization of Western society and can read a much higher percentage of the relevant communication. Suddenly the components and causes of a riot don't seem quite so clear. The riot seems more complex because the observer has so much more data and context and doesn't need to rely as much on heuristics.

As it turns out, there are lots of reasons people participate in a riot. Some people are trying to bring down a tyrannical system. Some want to see what all the noise is. Some notice that the police are busy elsewhere and decide to grab a television from an electronics store. I doubt there has ever been a perfectly noble or a perfectly hedonistic riot. The closer you get, the more complicated it seems.


marc said...

Thanks for posting on this. The coverage has been baffling. A key distinction I still don't see made is between a peaceful protest met with violence (Egypt; Bahrain; Libya), and a spontaneous riot, perhaps emerging from a social context, but itself not planned. Another distinction curiously missing is between social networking technologies used for political organizing (Facebook) and communications technologies used for tactical communications (Blackberry Messenger; SMS).

The part of the post that strikes me most is the comparison of a reporter in the US trying to write about Egypt or the UK. What's assumed there is that no one has, or is willing to put, someone on the ground. I'd argue that our inability to speak in an informed way about these event is mostly a symptom of the slow erosion of American journalism over the past five years, partially owing to the collapse of the business model, but not entirely. I could be in London in two hours, but so few US outlets demonstrate any interest in doing direct legwork, so I don't even bother ringing editors any more. Neither does anyone I know. Ultimately, a reporter in the US who doesn't speak Arabic shouldn't be writing about Cairo in the first place, and fifteen years ago, wouldn't have been, except for a few special and distinguished people on the op-ed page.

marc said...

And FWIW, here's a dispatch from London by a respected UK-based freelancer, Portia Walker:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Still, the fact that Egyptian and Syrian riots come in the context of a larger political phenomena, "Arab Spring" and the fact that these "riots" have people purporting to lead and speak for the people involved make them very different than the British riots which have much more in common with similar relatively isolated instances of emergent, not formally organized urban riots such as the L.A. riots (and arguably the initial event in the Arab Spring in Tunisia that ultimately gained speed and became organized).

No NGOs held meetings to plan the British riots and go looting.

This doesn't prevent the British riots from being an authentic manifestation of grass roots political sentiment as opposed to being purely hedonistic. The triggering group, at least, almost certainly had a heartfelt message about police brutality to communicate. It is the opposite of an astroturf demonstration.

While observer effects are certainly real, the comparison made probably isn't a very good one. Observer effects are likely to leave us misinformed about the particular political ideology of political protestors, but aren't likely to confound a large campaign of calculated political demonstrations from a relatively spontaneous outpouring of rage and greed.