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After the London Riots, a Tech-Savvy Study to Understand the Unrest

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, December 5 2011

A study recently conducted by the Guardian and the London School of Economics takes an American post-riot practice — collaboration between a newspaper and a more academic institution to pick apart the reasons for street violence — and updates it for the Internet age, including a study of millions of Twitter posts and exploring the role of tools like BlackBerry Messenger or Twitter and Facebook in the course of the riots that seized Tottenham and the greater London area this summer.

The findings support anecdotal evidence from the time that indicated BlackBerry Messenger, but not social media like Twitter or Facebook, saw use by rioters. They are also likely to resurrect a conversation in Britain about which lines around private personal communications authorities should be able to cross, and when they should be allowed to do so. Indeed, there's a current international discussion — fueled here in the United States through issues like a Bay Area public authority's new anti-protest cellphone shutdown policy — about that very same subject.

The Guardian and LSE study will be released in full on Dec. 14, but starting this week, the Guardian is publishing articles looking at the report's findings. A team of over 60 researchers, academics and journalists interviewed 270 rioters, but also analyzed 2.5 million tweets in the course of producing these findings. They are likely to rehash much of what has already been reported about the role of technology in the riots, but also use the vast tranche of Twitter postings to seek to understand the underlying issues that caused the unrest in the first place. The Guardian/LSE study doesn't seek to frame new technology as a cause of unrest, merely as an obvious conduit for it — and a source of historical record to help understand it. All of this, The Guardian writes, is modeled on the work the Detroit Free Press and and Michigan's Institute for Social Research did after unrest in Detroit, Mich. in 1967.

One main conclusion, is that "contrary to widespread speculation that rioters used social media to organize themselves and share "viral" information, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not used in any significant way. However, BlackBerry phones – and the free messaging service known as "BBM" – were used extensively to communicate, share information and plan riots in advance."

In one example cited by the Guardian, "When asked how he heard about the riots, one interviewee said he got a message on his BlackBerry saying people were 'getting free stuff out and about', so he joined in."

Another rioter put it this way:

"It was black, yeah, like all you could hear was 'whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo' alarm flashing off," said one looter from Lambeth, who had been told by a friend via the BlackBerry Messenger instant message service that it was "going off" in Clapham Junction and no police were present.

The Guardian also reported that peer pressure for brand name status objects such as BlackBerries, iPhones and laptops was also on rioters' minds.

The study comes at the same time that Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey, Faculty Co-Directors at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, published an article in Science magazine stating that better data is needed in policy discussions about regulating the Internet, an issue that came up following the English riots.

They write:

Most striking about these debates are the paucity of data available to guide policy and the extent to which policy-makers ignore the good data we do have. [...] Policy-making is based, too often, on anecdotes collected at random (or worse, self-servingly) or on research produced or funded in ways that call into doubt its scholarly integrity...We need to commit to long-term longitudinal studies of how digitally mediated communications are changing behavior. These studies matter to pending debates over policy in every state in the networked world, especially those with populations that are just coming online in large numbers.

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