#LondonRiots and Social Media: An Overview



Social Media Week is a leading news platform and worldwide conference that curates and shares the best ideas and insights into social media and technology's impact on business, society, and culture.


Access exclusive SMW+ content by marketers whose careers you can emulate with a free 30-day trial!

It has been seven days since August 4, 2011, when Mark Duggan was killed by police in Tottenham, England.  It’s been five days since August 6, 2011, when Mark Duggan’s family and concerned community members protested the unnecessary death of Duggan, who was riding in a cab at the time.  Police said that there was a gun fight while they tried to arrest him.  The ballistics testing revealed that Duggan never fired a shot.  Instead, they shot someone from London’s black community who did not return fire, and thus began what has turned into an awful saga of violence, poverty and murky social class commentary.  Who knew that social media would be the centre of a so-called lower class controversy? (More after the jump.)

While the question of Mark Duggan’s death is a murky subject, filled with political intrigue and a questionable police behavior, the community that Mark belonged to had apparently warned the police that there would be riots.  But the key is to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak–the riots may have started because of Duggan, but they continued because like all people in the spirit of burning and looting, the cause isn’t always the reason these things continue.  Instead, most of the rioting has been blamed on youth with blackberries and too much time on their hands.  In fact, the whole of the riots have caused a serious issue between the youth who are going around torching buildings and the middle and upper classes, who can’t seem to understand why all of this is happening.


Untitled-2 copy

A Class War

The main problem here is that there is a gigantic social divide between the people rioting and the people against the rioters.  Unlike in Vancouver, where the riot can be chalked up to idiocy and anarchy, most of the commentary in England has said the major cause is social divide and what is called in England the Big Society.’  There have been a lot cuts (naturally) over the last few years because of England’s financial woes relating from the last recession. Van Badham puts it nicely when she says, “Those asking why these young people aren’t concerned about the personal consequences of their behaviour need to understand that thanks to the efficient policy implementation of the Tories and their Liberal Democrat buddies, these kids effectively have no future… so why not grab a nice television if you’re spiralling towards oblivion, anyway?”

To put it in further perspective, the youth unemployment rate in the U.K. is 20.5 per cent for young people ages 16-24.  Compare that to Canada, where it’s around 15 per cent.  Add in the astronomically larger population of the U.K., and that’s a lot of unemployed, hormone-driven looters.

Untitled-1 copy

Social Media Movements

The really sad part is that the looting hasn’t stopped with London, but has carried on into Manchester and Birmingham.  The looters are almost all the same–young, unemployed people.  (Although, if you look below, not completely unresourceful…)

iphone sale copy

The key here is that social media has sparked some good ideas, and some unfortunate consequences.  There are citizens using social media to mobilize over twitter to prevent further violence (Like this live blogging Tumblr blog by a concerned citizen or the itv live news blog) or people posting photos to Flikr of the rioters to help speed along arrest and quell the violence.

The sad truth is that a lot of these younger people own smartphones and also participate on Twitter.  There was a giant spike on Twitter regarding the riots, but whether that was looters coordinating on it, or do-gooders coordinating clean-up is hard to say.  Of course, the riots have also inspired some viral pics, noted down below, like the guy planking during the riot, or ‘tea-on-a-riot-shield’.


00:38 9/8/2011: Camden Town, London

The Blackberry Controversy

Smart-phone technology like secure messaging has finally become a widespread tool for thuggery, exposed on the world scene.  Blackberry is under a hailstorm of criticism as part of the reason why the looters have been able to coordinate so well during all the chaos and while the police struggle to mobilize.  Blackberry messages are encrypted and difficult to trace: it’s made it easier for rioters to tell other people where the ‘prime looting’ is.  Not to mention, Blackberries are often sold at feature phone pricing and pay-as-you-go options, which would be the choice of people on  the dole who still want to have the latest gadgets.

But the backlash is not against Blackberry solely, but against opening up the data of British citizens to the police for the sake of catching mobbers.  Team poison, a hacktivist group concerned with citizen privacy has told Blackberry that “You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all.”  Team poison has promised to retaliate against Blackberry if they do decide to release secure and private information to the public. The Globe and Mail article explains more about them and the problem Blackberry is currently facing.


More than anything, the London riots are a sign of youth unrest.  The youth unrest there is much different than the youth unrest in the Middle East, or even elsewhere in the Western World.  This isn’t an Arab Spring, but there’s something to be said for the unrest and meaningless destruction and why it exists in the first place.  The reason being, I imagine, that there’s a very disgruntled group of youth in the U.K., most of whom are poor, without an education or a means to support themselves.  Why they are so unhappy is a loaded sociological question that Brits everywhere are going to need to answer in the very near future.

But the real problem, if you ask me, is youth unemployment and gang related crime.

The disenfranchised part of U.K. society has managed to rebel against their circumstances, using a mix of social media and messaging technology spurred on by the death of a young black man.  The widespread looting that has occurred is a sign that something is not well, and people in other Western countries are starting to ask if such an uprising from places with higher youth unemployment rates might not create the same kind of problem London or Greece had–where people are immune to rational arguments or help, even if that’s what they’re demanding.  We could blame the U.K. for not seeing its own social ills and societal problems, but most Western countries have these problems, thanks to the recession.   In short, how do you stop a mob from becoming more intelligent than the good citizenry?

The problems created by the recession and the loss of our quality of life in Western countries is finally starting to manifest itself, and it’s looking like social media is going to be a big factor in how a lot of these economic struggles are played out.  The key to resolving these problems will be how well organizations and governments can honestly respond and ethically use new media and new forms of communication to rebuild a lot of the social infrastructure we used to have, but can no longer afford.  In the end, the question is not about why the London riots happened, but when will they happen again, and how will Westerners use social media to respond in the future?

Brennan Sarich is a practitioner of public relations and digital strategy in Toronto, Ontario.  He is a freelancer with several years experience and specializes in online content, event management and social media.  Visit his blog or follow him on twitter @bsarich.

Interested in joining the Social Media Week Global Editorial Team? Apply here!


Newsletter Subscription

Get the latest insights, trends and best practices from today's leading industry voices.

Learn More

Write for Us

Interested in sharing your ideas and insights with the world? Become a SMW News contributor and reach 300k readers each month.

Apply Here