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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Riot police face challenge tracking social media, expert warns

Police forces across the UK face a tough challenge finding the resources needed to monitor social media networks for activity linked to organisation of the unprecedented city centre riots still spreading across the country, one leading academic analyst has told

Dr Paul Reilly, a lecturer in media and communication at Leicester University, said today that while social media most often simply reflected events on the ground rather than caused them - with for example images and videos being posted online as events unfold - it was nevertheless true that Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger - a more covert and secure instant messaging app for BlackBerry smartphones - have all been used by many people taking part in the ongoing wave of violence.

Last month Dr Reilly published a paper on the use of Twitter and YouTube by rioters and protestors against the opening of a Tesco shop in Stokes Croft, Bristol in April, when social media helped to spread rumours of police brutality during the eviction of squatters.

He said this research had shown that often action is not pre-planned, but people will simply see something is happening and attempt to see what is going on, if they live nearby. In other cases too, they may be equally likely to be drawn away from the area. "Such is the public nature of these events."

Where rioters do use public networks such as Twitter, they sometimes try to circumvent the public nature of the platform by using pre-arranged code words to trigger actions in certain places, Dr Reilly said. This approach had been used at the London rally against government spending cuts on 26 March by the 'Black bloc' anarchist group to orchestrate violence against the police to coincide with a peaceful sit-in at Fortnum and Mason by campaign group UK Uncut, he said.

The police have been trying to keep up with social media activity linked to rioting, Dr Reilly said, for example cancelling the Hackney One carnival on Sunday 7 August after intelligence, thought to include social media, led to fears it would be hijacked by rioters. However they face a tough time keeping up, he said, and it was not always clear whether it was the best use of resources.

"It's very difficult for the police to have the resources to have time to project what keywords would be used and monitor the Twitter feeds -it is not impossible, there is the technology to intercept communications but it clearly presents a very difficult challenge, particularly in a climate where police are facing cuts to their budgets", he said. "And the police are perhaps better deployed on the ground."

In the current riots, it has been interesting to see police have fallen back on the relatively "old-fashioned" but effective method of releasing CCTV images of rioters to aid identification of wrong-doers, Dr Reilly said.

It is also important to note that social media networks such as Twitter are being used for positive purposes in the face of the violent disorder, Dr Reilly said, such as with the emergence of the #riotcleanup hash tag to help people co-ordinate voluntary work to clean up damage or debris.

One such message from Twitter user 'Digbeth' on the morning of 9 August reads: "people, please get to @theBull @bullringBham at 10AM this morning for #riotcleanup if you can. :-) #weareBrum "