Social Media's Role in London Riots: Bane or Boon?


Social media’s importance in breaking news situations has been demonstrated once again with the London riots, this time becoming both a help and a hindrance to those caught in the fray.

The Metropolitan Police have set up an official Flickr page called “London Disorder - Operation Withern” in an effort to identify the rioters. The official page is joined by other similar Websites, such as Identify the London Rioters and Catch a Looter. While many eyewitness photos through official accounts have been confirmed, fake photos have slipped through the cracks, causing doubt as to the veracity of user-generated content, The Washington Post and other outlets have reported.

In an effort to keep the public up-to-date and involved, The Guardian is hosting an interactive map of every verified incident. Users can also submit geo-tagged photos (adding geographical data to photos) to the Flickr group, which will show up on the interactive map.

The Twitterverse has also been abuzz, with trending topics and new accounts following the incidents. The creation of an account called @riotcleanup, which, since Monday morning, has drawn thousands of followers and has coordinated efforts to clean up the city using the hashtag #riotscleanup. The Metropolitan Police have taken their use of social media further with the implementation of the official hashtag #tweetalooter, in which users are encouraged to come forward with any information regarding the identity of criminals. The feed has included screenshots of alleged rioters’ Facebook, Twitter and Myspace accounts, boasting of their participation in looting.

Although some rioters took to their social media accounts to incriminate themselves, many of the criminals have communicated via BBM, Blackberry’s private inter-user message service, which is untraceable by police, according to several reports. U.K. communications regulator Ofcom says that 37% of teens use a Blackberry; because of its widespread usage, especially in the case of the riots, MP David Lammy has called for the network to be shut down temporarily in order to help the police quell the riots.