Why Social Media remains a force for Social Good

There have been sweeping statements and government gaffes to spare in the last week as politicians of every persuasion have attempted to make sense of the riots which started in London and spread across the country. I’m reluctant to comment on the politics of the situation, which is a complex and tragic one, with no easy answers.

In the government’s response to the riots, however, they have made the medium the message. David Cameron has suggested restrictions on the use of social media among those plotting violence or disruption-that might be valid if it were in any way enforceable, although it undoubtedly sets a problematic precedent set against the backdrop of the role social media played in the Arab Spring.

Other politicians have, however, suggested taking social networks down altogether in crisis situations, which is a much more troubling suggestion.

Clearly, like any other medium social media can be used for good and for ill.

We’ve talked before about the 3 ways Clay Shirky outlines in which social media drives social change, by enabling individuals to:

1. Synchronise: To share, and therefore consolidate opinion

2. Co-ordinate: To come together to act as a group

3. Document:  To show the world what is happening

Inevitably, groups can synchronise dark and angry opinions as well as altruistic ones and can co-ordinate violent as well as positive action. Why the idea of taking social networks down during a crisis troubles me so much is the fact that around the world, in crisis situations from earthquakes to uprisings, social media has proved to be a powerful force for good. A force that helps citizens in their thousands document incidents in real time, come together and develop extraordinarily useful tools and services to help the afflicted.

In recent weeks and months Londoners (and citizens around the world) have used social media as a force for good in times of crisis in four key ways as I see it:

  1. Crisis Mapping
  2. Real time news
  3. Citizen journalism
  4. Co-ordinating positive action

1. Crisis Mapping:

I’m a huge and unashamed fan of the Ushahidi Platform, a word meaning “testimony” in Swahili and a crisis mapping service that uses citizens’ tweets and texts to map incidents and flash points in crisis areas around the world. The original platform has recently expanded to include the CrowdMap Platform which allows individuals to be up and running on the Ushahidi platform in minutes without the need to install it on their server. The platform has been used in situations from the Kenyan elections to the earthquake in Haiti to the “Snowpocalypse” in New York. It uses individuals’ testimony to create a data set far beyond what any one government, or non governmental organization is capable off. While I didn’t see this particular platform in use last week in London and while it would be no means claim to be flawless, both The Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as various citizen developers including @jamescridland created equivalents, mapping geo-tagged tweets about the riots to provide both analysis and utility. To shut down social media in times of crisis would be to shut down the ability to document real time incidents and provide timely warnings, analysis and calls for help.


Using Social Media for Crisis Mapping


2. Real time news:

A mere glance at twitter’s trending topics for the UK last week provided a real time update on the areas of greatest violence and disturbance.  Searching twitter also proved to be a useful street by street level guide to the areas worst afflicted, providing individuals with advice on how best to navigate their way home. Admittedly, the noise to signal ratio was a problem and there was probably as much inaccurate commentary as helpful. This is a problem the social web faces across the board and we undoubtedly need to get better at filtering commentary based on reputation-a real challenge for the algorithm writers.  Yet by focusing on the clearest and most lucid voices, genuinely helpful information could be extracted.  One need only look as the visualization of twitter coverage of the Japan earthquake to note how, for many, twitter has become their primary source of real time news coverage in times of emergency. I can think of nothing more calculated to inspire fear and anxiety at times of emergency than withdrawing access to news.

3. Citizen Journalism:

One of the most uplifting aspects of social media is the ability it gives ordinary individuals to capture images, stories and moments in time that broadcast news organizations may miss. This was true of the Arab spring, as some of the most powerful images to emerge came from individual citizens using basic photo sharing services and it was true in London last week. The defining image of Londoners’ response to the riots-to come out in their hundreds and begin the task of cleaning up the streets was captured by lawyer Andy B (@lawcol888 on twitter).


"Broom Army" by Andy B (@lawcol888)

4. Co-ordinating postive action:

After days of fear and anxiety, it was truly inspiring to see that by Tuesday morning #riotcleanup was the second trending topic in the UK, while @riotcleanup had almost 40,000 followers-now well over 80,000. Organised by Dan Thompson (@artistsmakers) the movement caught the public’s imagination with such an overwhelming response that in some areas clean up volunteers exceeded demand. Other groups rallied to the support of individual businesses affected by the riots, with interns from BBH London rallying support to the #keepaaroncutting cause-raising funds to help an 89 year old hairdresser from Tottenham whose shop had been ransacked. It’s worth noting that the police have also turned to social media to help identify looters and rioters, co-ordinating their efforts via Flickr.

So do these uplifting activities outweigh the potential for harm? We could debate that question for a long time-personally I believe very little is “worth” loss of life or livelihood- but I suspect it might be the wrong question. The question for me is this: Could these activities-both the harmful and the helpful-have happened without the intervention of social media?

My answer, when it comes to the riots is, unfortunately, yes. Riots and protests, violent and peaceful, have been co-ordinated for centuries without access to twitter or Facebook. Those who take to the streets are a minority, and it is relatively easy for a minority to communicate using closed or indeed broadcast channels. Reading Vanity Fair this weekend I was struck by a quote from designer Agnes B on her participation in the 1968 student uprising in Paris:

“We marched. There was the radio and we always knew where it was happening”.

That dangerous and subversive medium, the radio.

When it comes to the stories of real time news, citizen journalism and citizen activism, however, my answer is “no”. Perhaps I want to have my cake and eat it-it wouldn’t be the first time. My argument, though, is this: co-ordinating the riots required a relative few to be able to communicate, largely via a closed network. Co-ordinating the coverage, and the clean up, required thousands to be able to make their voices heard, in real time, with locations attached, via an open and accessible channel. It was the cumulation of those voices that was helpful-the sheer scale of real-time, on the ground updates. Making those voices heard, useful to others and actionable simply would not have been possible before the advent of social media.

This is a debate that will no doubt run and run. There are arguments to be made on both sides. We should be careful, however, that in the search for easy answers we do not switch off what is for many an ally in times of crisis.

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