Using Social Media in Times of Crises and Riots

Social Media is both the cause and the saviour.
I want to thank @codepo8, for writing up his thoughts on the power of social media, during these recent times of the london riots.

I must admit, it got me thinking. During the London Riots, I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until Sunday, that I was even aware that something was happening. And even then, it was only because a friend in the US emailed me about them.

But then as I started watching, and reading more about it, I realised the extent of what was playing out on the streets of London. Instinctively I took to the social webs, and was sat there in the living room, watching the news on the screen, and scanning twitter and facebook, to make sense of what was happening where.

It was scary at first – the thought of it happening, in our back yard, in our neighbourhoods, in our streets, was terrifying. Living in Wimbledon I wasn’t directly exposed in any way, but at the same time, so many people I knew would be, and I was afraid for them, as much as I was for the people that were there.

Seeing direct accounts from friends, both virtual and real drove home how real this was, but also helped me to see what I could do, and how I could be involved.

To provide some context, this wasn’t the first time that I was in a city where violence and public disorder had been happening. I was in Pakistan, the night Benazir Bhutto was shot. That happened the night before we were meant to fly out of Pakistan, back to London. That night, I barely slept, if at all. There was looting on the streets, vans set aflame, the roads were full of people in rage, burning buildings, protesting, and acting violently on the streets of Islamabad. We had just a day before been near the very place where Benazir Bhutto had been shot, and the fear was palpably in the air. Petrol stations had been shut down, and the family we were staying with fortunately were able to source petrol, and cars from neighbours, to be able to drive us to the airport. We were going to get taxis, but there were no taxis on the streets that night. Everyone had been told to go home, and stay indoors, whilst the whole of Pakistan was set in chaos. Our uncle worked in the police force in Karachi, and he was as worried for our safety as we were for his. These were not pleasant times indeed. Unfortunately, back then, the only news source we had was the TV, and the reporters on the screen. I couldn’t reach out, or speak to anyone. I couldn’t know what my neighbours or the rest of my family in Pakistan was experiencing. Most importantly I couldn’t be involved in what was happening, other than as a captive victim sat at home, watching on in fear. Fortunately when we did set off to the airport in the early hours of the morning, the roads were relatively empty. We drove through traffic lights (slowly of course), but we didn’t stop, as that would open us up to being attacked, or being targetted, if there was anyone around wanting to cause trouble. The airport was surrounded with armed guards, and they were restricting people entering the airport terminal, so that only travellers and their cars could enter, keeping law and order.

Now the difference between both incidents was that with the London Riots we were able to sit online, and use social media to start mobilising cleanup crews, and groups of people came together to start putting the world back to normal.  If it had been left up to just the authorities, and the existing set of public services it may have just been too much to handle, and would have probably taken a lot longer for things to be restored to normal.

In times of crises, or difficulty, it is crucial for ‘social media’ to be open, transparent, and publicly available for people to be able to use and communicate through.  We have seen how powerful social media can be to establish responses, and also during humanitarian, or natural disasters, teams of people, and entire communities can be mobilised just to support causes, or send much needed provisions.

It should never be a question of whether we allow these Social Media channels to remain open or not – but how do we as a society provide the much needed support, and guidance to these young people who feel left out from society, feel excluded from the mainstream, or have just been unable to make a clear moral choice in the face of peer pressure, to make inappropriate decisions.  What we should be examining is not how can we stop this riot from happening.  But instead, why did it even happen in the first place?  And then, once we’ve found the structures in our society responsible for the feeling of social exclusion, and separation, we need to find constructive ways of addressing them differently.  Through better education, greater personal support, and the encouragement of individual and team contributions.

People living in an inter-connected society should never feel alone, or disconnected.  That is if we do our job right, of making sure that the technology is an enabler, and not a hindrance to the process.

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