The press is churning out countless words analysing and reporting on the biggest news story of the hour: the London Riots. Reports will continue thick and fast for the next few weeks as the situation and developments are analysed – not by experts though, by politicians and the agenda driven media.
Some “news reporting” has been quick to blame social media, such as Facebook and Twitter for encouraging people to riot and loot. Certainly social media plays a part, mostly for rapid communication of an individual’s response, a response driven by personal life experience. We cannot blame the medium for this but rather the circumstances that led to people respond this way.
In the same light, on a personal level, Facebook comments highlight low levels of tolerance toward a situation my fellow citizens know little about. Generally rational and educated people, are referring to rioters and looters as “scumbags” and worse. If this is the way my “friends of friends” respond, thousands of kilometres away, imagine the response of those living in England.
We’ve known for a long time that people respond to the environment in which they find themselves. And, it is not always the way we would expect. The media response is typical. Look for a single cause that is easy to identify and get a quote from a politician who has an instant solution. Fortunately there are some who are probing a little deeper, asking more appropriate questions and providing more considered responses.
A news report by Channel 4 in the UK, mentioned but gave little thought to a few important issues: spending cuts, rising unemployment and increasing social inequality. Dr Paul Bagguley of the University of Leeds, researches the sociology of protest, was asked for comment:
“People are looking round and seeing people like them doing it and getting away with it. People don’t do these things if they think they are going to get caught,” he said. There’s truth in this, but rather simplistic. This suggests that we will all become looters if we see our neighbours doing so!
He goes on to say: “There used to be food riots in Britain and this is like a consumer version of that. People are bombarded with adverts and products that are desirable but they don’t have legitimate ways of obtaining them.” We inch closer to the issue.
Channel 4 news report then goes on to interview researher Richard Wilkinson of The Equality Trust. Wilkinson, a researcher and epidemiologist, says this kind of rioting is inevitable in a country which has major inequality issues, and where trust in the authorities has broken down. The gap between the richest 20 per cent and poorest 20 per cent in Britain is twice as big as in Sweden, Norway and Japan.
The media look to politicians to provide a simple and quick solution. The Mindhacks blog provides a summary of why some people feel they can riot when they wouldn’t normally behave this way.
The Mindhacks blog cites research on rioting and public order policing which contrasts with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to regain control of English streets. Cameron authorises a violent police response, saying that officers were able to use rubber bullets and water cannons. A response that would seem contrary to the “Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behaviour”.
This of course, also goes against the UK’s international stance against governments using force to bring social order to their citizens.
The Independent in the UK is also analysing the issue in a little more depth and deviating from the usual “blame the thugs” type reporting.
Washington Post reports “Underscoring the public anger, a YouGov poll for the Sun newspaper published Wednesday showed 90 percent of those surveyed calling for the use of water cannons against rioters, 77 percent supporting the deployment of the army and 33 percent saying police should be permitted to fire live ammunition.”
Thirty three percent of respondents approve of a violent police response involving lethal force! It seems the general public are so against the violence of rioters that they wish to promote the use of violence to crush public anger.
If anything, Facebook tells me our civil society isn’t so civil and anger and violence issues pervade all corners of our community.
Think it can’t happen here? Think again!