Riots in Britain reflect today's social ills – and social media

Britain's urban riots represent both frustration with economic hard times and common criminality. And they once again demonstrate that social media can be used for good or ill purposes.

A year from now the world will fixate on London as the city hosts the Summer Olympics. On Aug. 9, 2012, the 200-meter and 800-meter sprint finals will take place at London’s new Olympic Stadium before 80,000 spectators as well as millions of others worldwide.

Thank goodness that’s still 365 days away. For the past three days, the world has been grimacing as it watches London for an altogether different reason – the sight of the worst binge of urban rioting and looting the city has seen in more than 25 years.

Tonight 16,000 police are expected to take to the streets in an effort to finally quell the unrest, which has included widespread looting and setting fire to buildings and vehicles in several London neighborhoods.

The disturbances have begun to spread to other British cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol. More than 500 people have been arrested, filling local jail cells to capacity. So many fires have raged so intensely that the situation has drawn (perhaps a bit breathlessly) comparisons to the German aerial blitz during World War II.

The immediate task for authorities is to restore order on the streets and reassure the public that the situation has come under control. British police have tried to walk a careful line between limiting their use of force (as yet, no water cannons or plastic bullets and only one death) and restoring order. Now calls for a harsher response have stepped up, noting that the British government in the past has felt free to use much tougher tactics to combat the sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, for example.

The fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a father of four, in a north London neighborhood seems to have set off the violence.

Whether it is rooted in the ills of urban poverty (20 percent or more unemployment among youths 16-24) or represents simple criminal lawlessness is just one of the soul-searching debates now under way. Like many nations Britain has undertaken austerity measures that will cut welfare payments and thousands of government jobs in coming years. Job prospects for most urban youths are bleak.

Two girls who took part in the rioting Monday night boasted to a BBC journalist that they were showing police and “the rich” that “we can do what we want.”

As is often the case with urban riots, the poor neighborhoods themselves are taking the worst hit. “Tottenham [where Mr. Duggan died] didn’t have much, now [it’s] got a lot less,” said a British journalist who lives in that mixed-race neighborhood.

The rioting also provides yet another referendum on social media. Hooded and masked vandals are using social networks – Twitter and Facebook but especially Blackberry messages, which can’t be traced by police – to coordinate looting of a street. They then are tipped off by message if police are about to arrive and they vanish.

But honest Britons have been using social media for good, too. The Twitter hashtag #PrayForLondon asks people to “Please Pray for the protection of lives and properties in London, and Peace in the UK.” And #riotcleanup has become a rallying point for those who want to help. It has motivated people to take to the streets with trash bags and brooms to tidy up the mess the looters leave behind.

People are saying, ‘We’re Londoners, we’re resilient and getting on with it,’ ” says Dan Thompson, who started the #riotcleanup hashtag.

One couple made tea for the police protecting their street; a photo showed a policewoman using her riot shield as the serving tray. In another neighborhood, according to another witness, a “heroic mob” of Turkish men stood guard over a street full of shops, preventing looting.

The use of social media to aid this year’s Arab Spring lifted hearts around the world. Now it has given way to a British summer of Twitter-fied discontent. But technology can never be used as the fall guy. People thumbing away on their mobile phones bear full responsibility for their actions, for good or ill.

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