Anatomy of a Networked Riot: rapid violence, rapid response

Social networking has come under fire since England's week of riots and looting. But the same tools that facilitated a rapid escalation of violence also allowed citizens to organize a speedy response.
Catherine Dempsey
13 September 2011

I watched the riots unfolding in London with both fascination and alarm: fascination as I have spent recent months researching how digital flows of information can help citizens respond effectively to violence; alarm as concern for safety, friends and community grew along with the sense of lawlessness spreading like a virus.

I’m working on the PAX project which aims to create an online and collaborative early warning system for violent conflict.

The premise is that the rapidly expanding quantity of data online, and the ability to communicate directly and in real-time with people in the midst of events via mobile phones will enable better information and early warning of impending violent conflict in places at risk of war and genocide. Across the globe, real-time ‘big’ data and the horizontalising of communication have opened up many possibilities for rapid response, getting out of harms’ way, campaigning and community preparedness in the face of danger, as well as community organising initiatives.


Within hours of the London riots beginning, concerned citizens had set up online maps (see here and here) to document citizen reports of violence, creating an information eco-system to warn of where trouble was starting and escalating, but also building a bigger picture of the riots which could be overlaid with even more data such as magistrate court records (as in the Guardian’s datablog) and deprivation indices by neighbourhoods to look for patterns and answers to the ‘why’ of the riots. Much of this is now possible thanks to the work of open source software non-profits like Ushahidi , making mapping and reporting systems freely available and easy-to-use to allow the horizontal sharing of information in real-time. 

We are only just at the foothills of a steep learning curve to interpret the ‘digital smoke signals’ that networked data can reveal.  Analysing the dynamics and locations of local violence on the streets of Chicago in 1994-95, revealed patterns in spreading violence and led to the conclusion by public health academic Dr Gary Slutkin that violence behaves like a virus.  With this new data-driven approach, the Chicago Ceasefire project was launched – a ‘violence interruption’ programme which has seen great success in reducing shootings.  More data, more data sharing and collaborative data interpretation can hopefully lead to similarly effective approaches to conflict prevention elsewhere.

When confronted with the idea that Blackberry BBM private messaging led to and perpetuated the spread of the violence alone, and that by shutting this service down these events could have been prevented, we need to examine the complexity of violence and its multiple causes.  No single event or factor created the circumstances for these events to unfold and escalate.  Seeing the success of the initial looting, and the powerlessness of the police to stop it, on rolling 24 hour news programmes might have acted just as much as a trigger to riot as Twitter and BBM messages.

As Martin Robbins argued recently, trying to hold back social media is akin to King Cnut the Great attempting to command the tide. Robbins’ example was a highly networked slum in Nairobi, but the tide is global, and states and network providers are racing to develop responses.

In Kenya, mobile network operators responded in a novel way to calls to shut down mobile phone networks during the post-election violence of January 2008.  Text messages inciting violence against ethnic groups were being sent out on the networks, but the biggest operator – Safaricom – responded by sending mass messages to all their mobile customers calling for calm and peace.

During a period of unrest and violence in Kyrgyzstan last year, a network sprang up of 2000 people from civil society groups, interested in making sense of the huge increase in rumours circulating by text message and social media.  They were able to rapidly confirm or disprove rumours via their own networks within the country and to share this with their network online.  Just as firsthand information can be disseminated more quickly, the analysis and factchecking of this information can be carried out collaboratively and rapidly.

What was apparent during the rioting in London was that collaboration could be ignited like quickfire to powerful effect, both to create chaos and opportunities for looting, and to form the volunteer clean-up teams that had such a powerful impact in recreating a sense of community and mutual care.  Both were striking in their instantaneous nature – as David Hayes notes the speed itself is important, the rapidity of organising around an idea.  This cannot be put back in the box.  Traditional systems have so far been unable to keep up with tracking and preventing events as they are overwhelmed by numbers and pace.  But rather than attempting to put the brakes on an unstoppable force in communication, we can use our newfound capabilities to positive ends and improve understanding.  Just as the world found ways around the internet shutdowns in the Middle East this Spring, there are many alternative ways to communicate if one private messaging service were to be shut down. Flicking the internet or BBM ‘kill-switch’ is surely not the answer to future violence prevention. In fact, such an action could prevent innocent citizens from building response networks that inform, comfort, avert further violence and save lives. 

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