The answers aren't online

It takes more than 140 characters to raise a mob, says Kevin Fong

August 18, 2011

I wanted to write a column about my new Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship and about all the wonderful things I want to do with my new grant. But to write about that, with Croydon so recently ablaze and sirens screaming constantly up and down my high street, would be a little too much like sitting on the deck of the sinking Titanic painting watercolours of an imagined New York skyline.

During my interview for the fellowship we talked about social networking sites as a means of public engagement. Now people are asking if such sites are to blame for the incitement of civil disturbance.

Last week when the riots reached South London, nobody really knew how or why. People did try to use Twitter to point out that there was nothing to loot in our high street except second-hand dresses and fried chicken. But that didn’t stop them trying. Elsewhere, branches of Poundland took a beating and the morning papers showed what appeared to be pictures of people nicking everything from televisions to space hoppers.

This is the extent of the logic in this thing: people risking all, graduates and professionals among them, for a bouncy ride-on toy. So good luck to those trying to work out who or what is to blame. You can list the possible causes: austerity measures, the recession, the failure of the family unit, public service cuts - I even heard the tripling of tuition fees mentioned. Tuition fee hikes as a root cause of these riots? Seriously? How does that one go, I wonder? “Just popping out, Dad. Can’t afford uni next year so I’ve decided to spend the summer looting instead. You seen my hoodie anywhere?”

Looking for an easy answer to this is at least as futile as looting Poundland. The Right have it down to lack of moral fibre and proper upbringing, the Left to disenfranchised youth and austerity measures. Good luck to both sides for making anyone swallow that.

In desperation, looking for a measured statement and a universally easy-to-club subgroup, others reached for the evils of the microchip and social networking, its demon spawn. But that analysis of the ills of our modern age is as schizophrenic as the rest of this sorry saga. Depending on who you talk to, the interweb either disconnects individuals from society and reduces cohesion or gives them the apparently hitherto unknown ability to band together and go stealing stuff.

But there is no simple way to reduce this. It is what it is: mobs of people carried along by the tide of something that nobody, not even they themselves, can understand.

Finally Boris, Dave, Nick and Ed decided that enough was enough and that it was time to come home from holidays. The sight of our political leaders on the streets did little other than to offer some light relief. There was Boris waggling a broom in the air, perhaps thinking that this was the right moment to try again with the Big Society thing, and Dave hanging tough outside Number 10 with rhetoric sure to strike fear into the hearts of Boy Scout troops up and down the country. Nick and Ed didn’t fare any better; confronting a different kind of mob, this time made up of angry victims. None of them managed to look anything other than completely out of touch.

With our politicians fresh out of good ideas, the public chimed in with their tuppence worth. There was internet chatter about the need for the return of capital punishment and excitement at the possible deployment of rubber bullets and water cannon. All of which just went to show that you didn’t have to be on the streets to acquire the mentality of a crazed mob.

The role of the internet, social networking sites and encrypted messaging systems in all of this is, like everything else, complex. Without doubt, some have tried to fan the flames of civil disorder using these tools. And it appears that this might be partly to blame for the decentralised nature of the rioting. But on the evenings of the riots, the vast majority of internet traffic simply expressed outrage at the behaviour of the rioters - and later social networking sites did their bit to help in the orchestration of the clean-up, and proposed something more wonderful still called #operationcupoftea. (“Tea drinkers of the world, unite! Support the anti-rioting movement and have a snuggly cuppa at home, every day at 8.30pm until the riots stop.”)

The capacity to riot existed long before Twitter, Facebook, or for that matter Alexander Graham Bell. I don’t think we should be too quick to shoot the messenger, BlackBerry or otherwise. Indeed Twitter offered one of my favourite analyses of the whole sorry state of affairs: “The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42” Plasma TV.”

It was not London’s finest hour. But no matter how incomprehensible the root cause, this system, like all others in nature, is self-balancing. The hope is that things will return to equilibrium quickly before more lives and livelihoods are lost. This is a city that has seen far worse and still managed to get back on its feet. We have, at least, the confidence to know that we are capable of better.

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