Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Social Networking and Crowd Behaviour

The opportunistic looting we have seen in Manchester, London, and Birmingham has been a new phenomenon in Europe - the emergence of new forms of crime assisted by rapid social networking.

As the British Government starts to look at the role of social networking in August disturbances they would do well to draw on expertise of experts in thoses areas rather than bandwagoning populist waves of anger. While the initial riot itself in Tottenham may have its parallels in the Parisian banlieus and the LA riots, the looting that followed was a new phenomenon that emerged from appearance of rapid anonymous social networking, organised crime, and opportunistic crowd behaviour.

Soon after the riots began, the forces of law and order suddenly found themselves against superior numbers who had similar systems of communication to orchestrate crimes ranging from common mischief to homicide. No longer was it the decidedly non-assymetric street battle of water cannons and tear gas (not used in the island of Britain yet happily employed in Northern Ireland) versus stones and Molotov cocktails. These disturbances were characterised by highly mobile and coordinated youths who employed a number of strategies to beat the "feds".

Firstly, a group would conglomerate and a minority would separate to distract the police. The remainder would descend on Foot Locker or other purveyers of desired consumer goods in such numbers that the remaining police could not successfully intervene.

Secondly, when a sufficient number of police officers had amassed at a location, the looters had already communicated to each other through Blackberry that they were to descend on a new destination to repeat the process. Their communication is anonymous and cannot be easily traced, thus they act with relative impunity.

Flash mobs using new social media have been used to orchestrate public performances or protests but here they were used for looting, apparently a common activity in US cities such as Philadelphia where they have a curfew in place to prevent late night looting. The violence is a mixture of the usual suspects plus participation from opportunistic bystanders.

The Government will contemplate breaking encrypted networks such as this but there will surely emerge new forms of data sharing that evade this, just as has been the case with P2P networks. Such opportunistic crime may be with us to stay now, and expect more fun and games next summer 2012, just in time for the Olympics...

---update---

I recommend, if only for the surreal humour, this Newsnight report on the looters themselves, confirming what we already know - that rioting is fun if you could not give a flying fuck about the consequences and "ethical issues" like these lot. Chris Morris could not have done better...