Social Media and the diffusion of unrest

Susan Moger

Rioting in England appears to have spread contagiously across London and then to other cities in August 2011. The process calls for new thinking about the nature of leadership and the activation of social networks

Riots in London and around the country over the last three days [August 8-10, 2011] have seen widespread looting and buildings set alight. Dozens were left homeless after a night of riots on the streets of Tottenham on Saturday after a peaceful demonstration over the death of Mark Duggan a local resident, who was shot by police a few days earlier [Thursday Aug 4th].

One part of the debate centres around the concept of a trigger event as the single cause or tipping point for future actions. If we examine a historical pattern of events , comparisons have been drawn with the rioting some twenty five years ago which were triggered off by police actions in the same social housing complex (the Broadwater Farm Estate) from which the victim came.

The disturbances in London have illustrated how quickly a latent focus for unrest and mistrust can be ignited, or reignited with tragic consequences.

Urban guerrilla warfare

The situation has been particularly difficult to deal with because of the rapid spread of information that can help organisers to mobilise, operate and retreat before the police and civil authorities were able to respond. The unrest is a type of modern urban guerrilla warfare.

How social networks operate

Work on how social networks operate reveals the importance of individuals known as network activators, who have skills at mobilizing the efforts within their social networks. Our studies began with evidence from entrepreneurs who seemed able to create localized gains in social capital resulting in personal and organisational innovations and change.

The concept of network activation can be extended to actions observed within the change processes occurring in the era of social media, whether these contexts are considered desirable or not.

Structural embeddedness

The suddenness of the escalation of the riots in London and elsewhere suggests that a trigger event can produce a cascade effect. Taking the historic perspective we may consider that that the conditions for change are contained (or structurally embedded) in localised conditions. This helps explain the reappearance of patterns of behaviours in the same geographical area.

In the era of social network sites

Texting, the use of mobile devices such as a Blackberry, and the development of social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter, place the authories’ response to social disorder at a severe disadvantage. They are dealing with multi-focal events happening very quickly over a short period of time.

There are short-term steps to restoring social calm including technological fixes and more rapid and emphatic police action . However, understanding and addressing the underlying mechanisms of how such disorder arises and is sustained must also be a priority to achieving social stability and equity.

Notes:

Susan Moger is senior fellow in leadership at Manchester Business School. She has researched and written extensively about the processes of leadership, social networks and their activation. Her recent studies are to be published in the upcoming edition of the Handbook on the Knowledge Economy.

Image of Tottenham riot fire

Ironically, the first fatalities during the riots were from a hit and run driver. [Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir]. Haroon’s father Tariq Jahan became a powerful figure pleading for community restraint [Aug 11th].

See also Clifford Stott’s analysis challenging ‘the mindset of a mob mentality’

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