Five narratives of the UK riots. A round up of links on the what, how, who, why, and what happens next?

I live not far from Gold Command, which as Sky News excitedly informed me on Monday night, is where the planning for the policing of riots or civil disobedience. And I thought it was a car park.

As of this morning, there are still a load of hire vans parked along the streets nearby – presumably used to bus in all those extra bobbies for London. They’ve had a busy week.

I wanted to record some of the bits of writing I’ve found useful in understanding the events of the last week, as well as some of my scattered thoughts. Helpfully, these thematically arranged themselves into the following groups.

The story of what happened

Paul Lewis runs through this well. He writes with a breathlessness which well reflects the way the stories were reported. His technique involved donning a hoodie and biking from incident to incident, but there were so many different reporters (and citizens who picked up camera phones and started tweeting) around London that the news came constantly, including this pretty brave stuff from a Sky reporter in Clapham on Monday night.

At the time, the more you read or watched, the scarier events often seemed. Particularly by Monday night, endless loops of burning buildings on the rolling news channels, rumour as well as trustworthy updates on Twitter and Facebook, live blogs from most of the newspaper websites, as well as texts from friends around London, all added up into a hyped news bubble. By around 10pm on Monday, #prayforlondon was the third highest-used phrase on Twitter, worldwide.

Some of the examples from Storify (timelines of tweets) show how the narrative of the riots developed through both offline and online media, each feeding the other.

The Wikipedia riots page is a good effort at trying to gather all of the events from this strange last week.

The story of how social media affected the riots

Live news reporters were quick to suggest that social networks were somehow involved in organising the riots. ‘The twitter’ was often mentioned by studio hacks who knew not of what they spoke. How else would so many people know to assemble in the same area at the same time, often swiftly changing locations? But urban youth don’t use Twitter, they use Blackberry Messenger, as Mike Butcher showed in this article for TechCrunch.

And so began the fairly tortured narrative around social media and riots.

One of the suggestions has been that the government should gain new controls on social media.  This has been met with predictable disdain from democracy campaigns and technologists.

It seems odd that the vast majority of politicians apparently still don’t grasp social media. Especially since, when MPs were dramatically recalled to debate the riots on Thursday, they then launched into discussions that had already taken place in a more nuanced, advanced fashion online. Twitter itself is a form of parliament. A giant town hall meeting. We sit under the tree of Twitter and debate. MPs should be engaging with their constituents through it. There’s just no need for them all to rush to the same location. And still be late on the uptake.

It’s the people that matter, not the platforms. It allows information, true or false, to spread faster and wider. Except that it also leaves a data trail, in a way that speaking on the phone or in person wouldn’t.

And without social media, communities might have struggled to organise some of the more humane elements in the riots:  #riotwombles cleaning up Clapham, financial assistance for the Malaysian student mugged while seriously injured and to the 89-yr old barber whose shop was trashed, and, as my colleague put it, the ‘digital stocks’ of photoshoplooter.tumblr.com. Whether or not the riot wombles actually did much clearing up (mostly they seemed to wait around for police forensics teams to finish) they helped show that there were two sides to the community – and showed the rioters that there was a large body of people affected by their actions.

More importantly perhaps, social media allowed trusted local bloggers/tweeters to be extremely useful in identifying what was happening in immediate areas – down to individual postcodes – providing much more geographically relevant information than national news could.

How it stopped

This has become another disputed story of the riots – a bit of a spat between police and government over who was responsible for the orders of extra police on to the streets. Top police officers claimed that they would have done so without politician involvement.

But by flying back and giving dramatic speeches, including mention of ‘more robust policing’, politicians created expectations and impressions of gravity, which may have helped changed the mood in the rioters’ communities and networks. Even if it seems unlikely that many youths watched Cameron’s speech, their parents may have done, or at least sensed that repercussions would get more severe, so hauling their children back home on Tuesday night (in London at least).

The story of who was involved

Pictures tell a thousand words. The first images of looters shown on TV seemed to only feature teenagers. It quickly became accepted truth that the looters were urban youth, acting in anarchic fashion. News reporters talked of ‘a child of only [any age between 7-14]’, but when you looked at more of the pictures coming off CCTV, it’s obvious that wasn’t only the case. It was also reported, especially in Manchester, that kids were being organised by older members of the community.

Ideally, the data from the magistrates courts across the country would be pooled and analysed, as the BBC showed with Camberwell Green (but only 55 cases from the 2,000+ arrests). The Guardian datablog post is being updated as I write. It shows a large majority of those charged being between 11-24.

The story of why it happened

And this is the biggie. In positive psychology, you’re sometimes asked to ignore the ‘why’ question – it often doesn’t help the immediate situation. By dwelling on the why, you simply get stuck in the same negative cognitive cycle. For example, ask a young rioter why they did it. They’re not going to have any good answers.

But this has been where some of the most thoughtful writing has come from. One of the best being this article from Peter Oborne. He writes with fury and a passion with which great journalism does. One suspects he will not be invited back to any Kensington dinner parties any time soon. The article has received over 4,000 comments online.

the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society”

The BBC have another ’10 explanations for the riots’ which includes a fairly broad spectrum of theories. Their list includes the ‘check out the price of failing to care’ argument of Camilla Batmanghelidjh, CEO of Kids Company, a London charity for children, as well as arguments ranging from ‘weak’ policing, to American rap music (rioters referred to the police as ‘Feds’).

The other debate this week has been about cuts to policing, youth clubs etc, as opposition politicians try to carefully, or not so carefully (Ken Livingstone), gain political capital. Their cause may have been helped by this prophetic Guardian video, warning of riots due to youth club cuts, which swiftly went viral after events in Tottenham.

And the story of what happens next

The attention span of journalists, editors and ultimately news consumers is notoriously short. While a story as dramatic and visceral as riots is likely to hang around, over time another story will come along, elements of what happened may be forgotten.

News moves on, society must not.

If you want to help prevent this happening again, get involved. Volunteer. Get to know your community by working for it. Mentor a child. This is hugely rewarding and is incredibly valuable to the children involved. Charities that do this include Chance UK, who work in Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and other poor areas around the UK and whose programme I can recommend. The Mayor of London is also promoting a mentoring scheme, and Kids Co, mentioned above, also run mentoring projects.  This stuff is proven to work.

You hope that events like these wake everybody out of ignorance or moral stupor. To change things. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Thursday:

I believe that this is a moment which we must seize, a moment where there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity, sufficient awareness of the resources people have in helping and supporting one another, sufficient hope (in spite of everything) of what can be achieved by the governing institutions of this country, including in Your Lordship’s House, to engage creatively with the possibilities that this moment gives us. And I trust, My Lords, that we shall respond with energy to that moment which could be crucial for the long-term future of our country and our society. 

We’ll see.

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