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Riots: Information Cascading Through Social Media

In early August, looting and arson by youths spread across London. As with many riots, this was triggered by the death of someone whom some believed authorities unfairly targeted. In Britain, Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four, was shot dead by police attempting to arrest him. The apparent circumstances of his death angered some who decided to pursue the situation further. This led to the creation of a Facebook page that became the focus of a social-media effort that ultimately fueled the riot.

Now this does not mean that Facebook or Twitter causes riots, for riots broke out centuries before the advent of social-media sites. However, there is no question that these real-time networks accelerate riots and protests when they occur. In some cases, information about riots and coordinating gatherings are spread through mobile and social tools like Facebook, Twitter, or even SMS messaging. But even more impactful is the information cascade that occurs when seeing others posting about their behavior.

By being able to see that others are involved in rebellions, “protestors see themselves as part of a larger movement”. In just knowing that they are not alone, people can justify their behavior in a riot and an information cascade occurs as more and more people take part. These people may not even know each other, but social-media connections allow them to communicate quickly and easily about a larger phenomenon.

As with all riots, everyone looked for a culprit in the London riots – some blamed social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, while others pinned the violence on BlackBerry’s instant messaging. With our increasingly real-time, mobile and connected lives, these methods of information transfer can be incredibly powerful in influencing social rebellions.



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