With the media struggling to keep up with rapidly unfolding riots across the UK, Twitter has risen to prominence as the best source for on-the-ground reports and images, but has also revealed itself to be a unique hotbed for ill-informed opinion. Such are the contradictions of citizen journalism.
Although conspiracy theorists spent the first few hours of the unrest muttering about some vague “mainstream media” cover-up, the major news channels did eventually give it prominence. But while the story was still developing, and images and reports from the social networks could not be independently verified, the unrest could not and should not have bumped market turmoil and Afghan casualties down the news agenda. The fact that a BBC Satellite van was attacked in Tottenham on Saturday night shows how dangerous and unwieldy it was to get a television news crew on the ground in the middle of what was essentially a battle zone.
…on-the-spot reportage and reaction…
In these circumstances, Twitter was clearly the place to be for testimony, often from residents themselves and even (apparently) from some of the people taking part in the unrest. Tottenham’s local MP, David Lammy, used the site to issue his reaction to the initial violence, bypassing the usual routes and going straight to the place the coverage was unfolding. These events have given journalists a clear reminder of what new media can bring to a story, providing a hugely useful forum for on-the-spot reportage and reaction.
Yet, as ever, a cacophony of voices far removed from the action waded in to provide instant armchair analysis based on their second-hand reading of constantly shifting events. Ranging from regular people to, less forgivably, actual paid “journalists” – Twitter has played host to point-scoring, falsehood and petty swipes.
Some choice tweets from this weekend:
Be inspired by the scenes in #tottenham, and rise up in your own neighbourhood. 100 people in every area = the way we can beat the feds – Jody MacIntyre, Activist
Neither the people nor markets trust governments anymore. There will inevitably be more civil unrest. The prospect frightens me. #tottenham – Laurie Penny, New Statesman
The clear thread running through most of the analysis was that this was all part of some long-awaited socialist overthrow of those pesky Tories. Cue the comical sight of “activists” heading down to Tottenham on Saturday to join in the revolution, no doubt expecting to be welcomed as saviours in the Student Protests 2.0.
…a recipe for self-importance built on the very shakiest factual basis…
Add to this a mix of insta-condemn ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ right-wingers rushing to judge those who’d taken part and you have a recipe for self-importance built on the very shakiest factual basis. Here’s Nick Griffin, everyone’s favourite racist, somehow able to spot a Jew in grainy footage:
“Riot footage shows it a joint black/Jewish affair. Now that is strange. Wonders of multi culturalism (sic)!”
Journalists should by all means rely on Twitter to help us find out what’s going on, to flesh out a picture. But until we know for certain, until we’ve spoken to the people there, until we’ve gathered enough material on the ground to stitch together something close to the truth, we should shut our big fat mouths. The similarity between Laurie Penny and Nick Griffin is that neither one knows what has really happened over the past few days, neither were there, but both have slotted events neatly into their view of how the world works.
You might have these riots to have been about the nasty Tories, or the fault of lazy benefit-claiming ‘scumbags’, but unless you took part, you cannot say. Rushing into a story with a preconceived idea of what you want to be happening there is a sure-fire way to get it wrong.