Reporting Riots in Real Time

Twitter streams built up a faster picture than London's news organizations could manage.

Experiencing unrest in your home city at great distance is an increasingly common phenomenon. But it was not one I had necessarily expected to encounter myself. Learning that there were riots in the north London district of Tottenham on Saturday night was a surprise, to hear of it rapidly spreading through my home borough of Hackney over the next 24 hours was a shock, and the subsequent flaring of trouble across the city and then across the country became increasingly surreal.

It is a sensation that millions of people have felt in the past year as they tried to follow events in their own homelands through a highly distributed but increasingly effective network of media sources. For the British abroad, it was unsettling but less disturbing to hear about consumer good shops being ransacked than it would be for families wondering if their homes were still standing or their relatives alive in places where unrest is violent, constant and repressed by totalitarian regimes.

Common for all of us, however, is the extent to which the real-time social web changes the proximity to events and helps to clarify a perspective on what is often a chaotic situation. The messiness of the media itself is a powerful metaphor for the chain of events being followed. Streams on Twitter themed with #londonriots built up a faster real-time picture than any news organization could manage.

Even though much was unverified or just conjecture, and at times highly confusing, it was better to feel intimacy with the chaos than removed from it by packaged news. The mainstream media struggled, and in the U.S. it was an invisible story for most cable outlets, though many U.K. journalists were the best sources on Twitter and other platforms. The BBC, which rather shockingly usually blocks its live news channel from international access, unblocked its coverage, but the links, postings, incident maps and microblogging of professional reporters and local citizens carried the greater force.

As a citizen wanting information, and as a professional journalist observing changes in reporting, I’m struck by how necessity becomes the mother of invention in the communications sphere, and every trauma now brings with it innovation. Rioters were using BlackBerry Messenger to communicate: a sophisticated twist on public network communication, as it is theoretically less easy to trace and identify. Media used tools like Google Maps to help sort and verify events with geographic accuracy. Users posted video of criminal acts on YouTube and Facebook – soon to be followed by the police, using similar outlets to help identify wrongdoers. Just as rapid distributed media and communications allowed for swift emulation, they also provided a platform to organize clean-up operations.

London has a patchy but reasonably recent history of riots and civil protest, particularly in the capital: As austerity measures have bitten, students have protested, public sector workers have protested, ordinary civilians have protested. The context of the Tottenham riots was rooted in the police shooting of local man Mark Duggan. The wider rioting had a less specific cause, but came out of a society feeling the social division of economic constraint more sharply than ever.

Finding journalistic insight or political agreement about the root cause and spread of the riots has been far harder than tracking the events themselves. Again, this is a journalistic and civic dilemma: how to imbue the immediate and dramatic with the more complex and long term. But again, here we see the power of networks, and the speed of sharing. I picked up a Tweet from the Guardian’s deputy editor Kath Viner, pointing to this piece by philosopher Nina Power. It is apparently already in the top five most read pieces ever published on the Comment is Free site – a remarkable statistic which demonstrates that the appetite for the "why" is as great as the desire to know the "what."

What was painfully and manifestly clear, even from the distance of New York, is that the political response lacked the focus or the agility to meet the crisis. As regimes around the world have discovered, whatever the political context, the reality for all institutions is now that they have literally to keep pace with a population moving at a very different speed.