Riots and Social Media

The reports of networked riots taking place, of Blackberry fuelled, Twitter fuelled, whatever fuelled, mobs have been widespread since the riots in England broke out a week ago. David Cameron cynically name checked these platforms in his emergency parliamentary address and threatened the temporary shut down of social networks and the exclusion of individuals from them, all for a cheap headline. But this posturing is as ludicrous technically as it is politically - of course it will never happen - but indicates the degree to which the veneer of liberalism of the current government is just that. It underpins the need to challenge their illiberal and socially destructive agenda.  This is the mirror image of the mainstream media narrative spun around the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the Arab Spring; a narrative that demands sharp binaries, neat explanations, and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’. We all recognise this pattern; much of Twitter certainly does. Raymond Williams unpicked such naïve media effects arguments a generation ago  - and indeed nobody has been fooled by those kinds of claims for a moment, well no-one but Sun and Daily Mail leader writers, who surely don’t believe it either.  Scarcely two weeks after parliament and the press were hanging their heads in shame at their own depravity and short termism we find them again rushing to pronounce with empty moral gestures and bloated clichés: the politics-media-entertainment de-complexification machine is back to work as normal without missing a beat.

Yet remarkably, and somewhat ironically, thoughtful informed publics keep finding a voice through the very social media condemned. On Twitter, one of the prime ‘culprits’ of the moment, as well as Facebook – the sharing and enlarging of public discourse has been taking place, the quality of which shames that of parliament, the broadcast media and most of the press. Nuanced analysis, in-depth contextualised debate rooted in an understanding of history, economics, and political science have been posted on walls, blogged, tweeted and re-tweeted. Refutations are offered, counter argument and counter facts circulate. The answers may be elusive, but the effort to find them is real enough. This is not about Twitter as a responsible clean up 'tool' on which good citizens come together to build their big society neighborhoods  (events which have been criticised for their highly problematic and exclusionary undertones) but about maintaining the capacity for rich engaging deliberation and holding open the space for the realisation of a fulsome critical and democratic culture.

The riots show us that social media can be a conduit for unfocused affective impulse and mimeses - this is the context of, as David Harvey convincingly argues, neo-liberal capitalism: its deprivations, social exclusion and its systemic reward for exploitation. When the affordances of certain communications platforms meet injustice, the ethos of consumer capitalism, the will and opportunity to act, the results have been visible across England.

The question that strikes me here, and is indeed the core question of any network politics worthy of the name, is how such energies can be leveraged for concerted collective political action beyond explosive moments of undirected rage? Herbert Marcuse identified half a century ago that the excluded have the potential to form a powerful political force but have always been prevented from forming themselves into a self-conscious class, to do so requires recognition of each other, of their shared interests and of systemic inequalities.

The kinds of networks of recognition that have been coming into being in these debates over the riots, through the concurrence of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere – but still in a fairly bounded way - need to be extended, new articulations found. The precedent is already there in the use of the Internet in a wide range of struggles around the world. Social networks offer a unique capacity for building relationships, even while they are themselves struggled over and contested.

The cuts haven’t even really begun yet, and as the government’s promise to instill fear and discipline into labour takes hold, as precarity and misery spread, then there will be many more people who will likely find common cause. The key will be to fight to keep networks distributed and open, to marshal the receptivity to action through deliberation and connection, to invite cooperation and to work against the forces of reaction that are marshaling themselves in parliament and in the mainstream media.