Analysis of more than 2.5m Twitter messages relating to the riots in England has cast doubt on the rationale behind government proposals to ban people from social networks or shut down their websites in times of civil unrest.
A preliminary study of a database of riot-related tweets, compiled by the Guardian, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.
Timing trends drawn from the data question the assumption that Twitter played a widespread role in inciting the violence in advance, an accusation also levelled at the rival social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.
The unique database contains tweets about the riots sent throughout the disorder, which began in Tottenham, north London, on 6 August. It also reveals how extensively Twitter was used to co-ordinate a movement by citizens to clean the streets after the disorder. More than 206,000 tweets – 8% of the total – related to attempts to clean up the debris left by four nights of rioting and looting.
This news is therefore encouraging, if true, but Western societies still need to find ways to manage and regulate the unhealthy power of social media companies:
Facebook and Twitter are preparing to stand firm against government ministers’ calls to ban people from social networks or shut their websites down in times of civil unrest.
The major social networks are expected to offer no concessions when they meet the home secretary, Theresa May, at a Home Office summit on Thursday lunchtime.
Ministers are expected to row back on David Cameron’s call for suspected rioters to be banned from social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, following the riots and looting across England a fortnight ago.
The home secretary will explore what measures the major social networks could take to help contain disorder – including how law enforcement can more effectively use the sites – rather than discuss powers to shut them down. The acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin, and the Tory MP Louise Mensch have separately explored the idea of shutting down websites during emergencies.
The technology companies will strongly warn the government against introducing emergency measures that could usher in a new form of online censorship. Attacks on London landmarks, including the Olympics site and Westfield shopping centres, were thwarted earlier this month after police managed to intercept private BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) posts – suggesting that leaving networks running can provide a valuable source of intelligence and information.