Weapons of choice

Is social media the enemy? Lessons from the London Riots

“LONDON — Seeking to reestablish his authority after England’s worst rioting in decades, Prime Minister David Cameron told an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday that the authorities would consider curfews, constraining smartphones and social networking sites, and filling some police functions with soldiers to keep more officers on the street.” (NYTimes)

As the flames simmer on the aftermath of almost a week of violence in London and across Britain, people are searching for answers as to what sparked the London riots and discuss what measures should be taken to quell such violence, it seems top of the list of suspects and potential accomplices is social media. Along with the army, social media has become a weapon for both sides of the law.

Social media has featured heavily in this story. Be it a tool for thugs to organize riots, vigilantes to assemble anti riot posses, police to gain support from concerned citizens and or leveraged as a virtual police line-up to try and identify the culprits and prosecute the looters – social media has played a significant role at the forefront. The spectrum of uses mentioned here proves at the very least that social media is a ubiquitous tool, that can be a great enabler for good or evil. It all depends on your perspective.

So what have we learnt from this? Is the medium that was hailed a hero in instigating a sweeping change in Egypt and continues to be a catlyst for reform in Syria, can now be the villain because of how it has been used in London? Do we need to follow in Egypt’s footprints and try and shut down the internet and social media when things go wrong in your country?

The simple answer I believe, is ‘don’t shoot the messenger’. But I think more interestingly, from someone who tries to drive adoption of social media in the corporate world, is to answer the question around what is actually driving people to use social media as such an effective ‘weapon’ in times such as these? As a comparison, I must say the use social media for collective good in organizations I have seen to date, has had less compelling results (when compared to mass breaking and pillaging).

We only need to look further into the story on London to find the Prime Minister Gordon’s answer for this one.

“This is not about poverty, it’s about culture,” he said, “a culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.” (NYTimes)

So if the answer is culture, what have we learnt from the riots that made the social media so powerful, that the government wants to shut it down? How do we leverage social media for good and invoke powerful positive organisational change, using social media? How do we help a culture embrace social media? The lessons I have taken from London include the following.

Have a compelling purpose

The rioters were united in a broad purpose. Initially seen to be a response to the police shooting of a black father in a poorly explained police arrest, this event provided a spark, which then became a catalyst for the overwhelming feeling of the ‘have nots’ versus those the ‘haves’. A feeling of repression that welled up into collective acts of violence, theft and destruction.

For organizations we take from this that social media tools by themselves do not spark initiative. The purpose for the organization and its’ underlying networks (including virtural / social networks) must be clear to the participants. There is no purpose in using a tool for the sake of using a tool. Instead we must find the purpose and illustrate to the people how the tool will help us unite with each other in achieving that purpose.

Unite people with a story

The story each rioter heard in London, probably had many variations as to why people should riot, but from the actions taken, clearly it was a compelling one. The thing about a good story is, if it is short, appeals to the emotions and people can then quickly see it playing out in front of them, then the chance for individuals to jump into the fray becomes very inviting.

In organisations we lose a story in pages of facts and powerpoint slides. We fail to connect with people emotionally for fear of not making good business sense, then we demonstrate we are not that confident in the story ourselves, by not following through with our own actions. Clearly we must do the reverse of this.

Empower people through autonomous colloboration

There is no evidence to date to suggest the rioters in London spent months planning their tirade. Or had some of pre formed manifesto, or any form of strategic battle plan or probably even one PowerPoint slide, let alone a 100. There were no role descriptions and not everyone had the exact same outcome in mind, but the outcome was pretty overwhelming. People, through their own choices played different roles, whether that be fighting the police lines or carrying out looting, the results were there for all to be seen.

Autonomy is a powerful thing. If you can harness a persons passions and align them to that direction, you never know what may be achieved. Helping them to then colloborate, using social media and other vehicles, can only thus increase this powerful force. Without some degree of autonomy, the need for colloboration and social media will not be as strong, as people don’t need to seek out the answers, they are too busy waiting to be told.

What lessons from the London riots and the use of social media did you learn?

Photo Credit