Twitter's balancing act in times of crisis

    Sam Mutimer

    Loads of news articles are racing around the web this week about police blaming Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) for fueling the spread of riots and looting across England.
    Right now my TweetDeck is streaming #londonriots and pinging me every two seconds with a new photo, opinion or news report. Even my Friends stream is all in a flurry over the riots and looting, with comments covering all possible angles you could think of. Why has it happened, where is it happening, is it the announcement of a second wave GFC? Was it really the death of Tottenham resident Mark Duggen? A Facebook memorial page has already clocked up over 28,000 fans and broadcasts messages of peace contrary to the violence that’s happening.
    At the crux of everything though, is the issue of whether social networks are responsible for enabling rapid spread of the riots.
    It’s a complex one. Once again, we’re face to face with evidence of the impacts of social media. It’s revolutionary, in one way or another.
    Look how rapidly a ‘movement’ can start when individuals form communities with shared views, using online social networks that transcend geographical boundaries!
    Interestingly, these distributed peer-to-peer communication channels and anti-establishment behaviours have been said to share characteristics with the Anarchy movement of the 1970s, by many an academic.
    Of course Revolutions were started just fine before the Internet was invented, but online social networks offer huge scale and reach that can fuel these fires out of control.
    In saying that – it’s not the social media that’s volatile in England right now, it’s the people that are. Social media is just the vehicle (don’t shoot the messenger!).
    To really drive it home, I’ll go one step further: the same scale and reach that helps communities form across the globe around shared interests like arts and crafts, is the same scale and reach that enables socially disadvantaged groups to connect, mobilise and literally run riot across England.
    Twitter has proven its vulnerability in places like Cairo, where it was instrumental for protesters, leading to widespread demonstrations, but unfortunately resulted in police brutality.
    In contrast, Kenya saw the groundbreaking development of an open-source crisis-mapping platform called Ushahidi in 2007, during post-election violence. The tool allows for real-time plotting of incidences of violence, safe houses, fires and other hazards on a map. It enables humanitarian aid and authorities to quickly mobilise and deploy and it helps citizens at risk make informed, timely decisions.
    This kind of tool is a sort of lighthouse to anyone with Internet access in a time of rapidly moving crisis.
    Likewise, an article in The Age speaks of London do-gooders using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate a big clean up of the trashed areas.
    Shouldn’t authorities be getting as savvy with online social networking as the rest of us by now? If not for any reason other than crisis planning and building community resilience…
    Share your thoughts below…!

    Photo: Luke Macgregor/Reuters (theageonline.com.au)