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Social media study reveals unreported truths on the nature of street protests

14 October 2011 Leicester, University of

Academic analyses 70 YouTube videos and commentaries to highlight use of social media in protests

A new study from the University of Leicester into the use of social media in street protests and riots has revealed how it is effective for both protesters and police.

Social media was implicated in the co-ordination of recent riots, but it is increasingly being used by crime fighters and businesses to follow and deal with protests and crime, the study found

And it also provided a means of ‘witness testimony’- evidence from the street level, a citizen’s eye  of what is going on, sometimes in contradiction of media reports of an incident.

Dr Paul Reilly, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication, also found that some people’s social media postings ran the risk of presenting evidence against themselves, revealing that they were complicit in a crime.

Dr Reilly has made a study of the role new media played in the Stokes Croft riots in Bristol in April this year, when local opposition against the opening of a new supermarket chain in Stokes Croft was said to have contributed towards rioting in the area.  Both police and protestors accused each other of being responsible for the violence.

People on the streets in Stokes Croft took short videos with their mobile phones to show the actions of the police.  These videos were later put on YouTube, often contradicting the media’s interpretation of events.

Dr Reilly examined 70 YouTube videos and commentaries, piecing together the different angles like a jigsaw, and building up a picture of what actually happened at Stokes Croft.  

In a paper, entitled ‘Every Little Helps’, given at the British Sociological Association Media Studies Group Conference, Dr Reilly argued that the people who made these videos did it to project some of the police actions at Stokes Croft and to show that, contrary to the stories that appeared in the press, what happened there was not an anti-store demonstration that turned violent but rather a peaceful event gate-crashed by rioters.

One aspect of the Stokes Croft unrest that seems to have been bypassed by the media, for instance, but which featured prominently on YouTube videos, was the police action to evict a squat in the area between 9.00pm and 10.00pm on the Thursday before a bank holiday.

“I pieced together things that were not picked up even in the press,” said Dr Reilly.  

“A lot of people from the area were defending their legitimate protests on YouTube and trying to differentiate this from the violence. They were using surveillance techniques to illustrate what had happened and to counter what the media said about it.  

“They probably failed in their aim because the public felt sorry for the police, rather than sympathetic to those making the recordings, and in many cases peaceful protestors caught on camera received no credit at all.

“It all points to a trend of how people, young and older, have access to information on social media in ways that haven’t been available before. This goes back to 9/11, it’s not new.  But the degree to which people can post videos of events and comment on them is new.”

The use of new media in times of unrest, Dr Reilly contends, has had both positive and negative aspects and is riddled with contradictions.  

During the recent riots, while undoubtedly rioters and looters did keep in touch and direct operations through social media, Hackney shopkeepers were also able to follow events on Twitter, allowing them to board up their shops and leave when it appeared the rioting was moving their way.

In Leicester the police used Twitter to dispel rumours and hearsay during the disturbances. “They communicated through Twitter during the riots rather than just used the site afterwards for intelligence purposes,” said Dr Reilly.  

As for Government suggestions of censoring social media during times of unrest, Dr Reilly feels that would have been hypocritical from a government that has viewed social media as a positive factor in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt.  “If protestors in countries involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ should be allowed to use Twitter then surely that should also be true for people in England,” he said.

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