Blaming technology or popular culture for violence is an ideology that avoids engaging with the real societal causes of riots, argues Christian Fuchs.

Rioter photographs police with mobile

“One formula […] can be that of the mob: gullible, fickle, herdlike, low in taste and habit. […] If […] our purpose is manipulation – the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, known in certain ways – the convenient formula will be that of the masses”.
Raymond Williams

“What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together”.

This passage could be a description of the social conditions in the United Kingdom today. It is, however, a passage from Friedrich Engels’ report about the “Working Class in England”, published in 1845.

In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972, Stanley Cohen shows how public discourse tends to blame media and popular culture for triggering, causing or stimulating violence. “There is a long history of moral panics about the alleged harmful effects of exposure to popular media and cultural forms – comics and cartoons, popular theatre, cinema, rock music, video nasties, computer games, internet porn” – and, one should add today, social media. “For conservatives, the media glamorize crime, trivialize public insecurities and undermine moral authority; for liberals the media exaggerate the risks of crime and whip up moral panics to vindicate an unjust and authoritarian crime control policy” (Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Routledge 1972/2002. Third edition, p. xvii).

The shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police on August 4th 2011 in Tottenham triggered riots in London areas such as Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield Town, Ponders End, Brixton, Walthamstow, Walthamstow Central, Chingford Mount, Hackney, Croydon, Ealing and in other UK areas such as Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), St. Ann’s (Nottingham), West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Salford, or Central Manchester.

Parts of the mass media started blaming social media for being the cause of the violence. The Sun reported on August 8th: “Rioting thugs use Twitter to boost their numbers in thieving store raids. […] THUGS used social network Twitter to orchestrate the Tottenham violence and incite others to join in as they sent messages urging: ’Roll up and loot’“.  The Telegraph wrote on the same day: “How technology fuelled Britain’s first 21st century riot. The Tottenham riots were orchestrated by teenage gang members, who used the latest mobile phone technology to incite and film the looting and violence. Gang members used Blackberry smart-phones designed as a communications tool for high-flying executives to organise the mayhem”. The Daily Mail wrote on August 7th that there are “fears that violence was fanned by Twitter as picture of burning police car was re-tweeted more than 100 times”.

Even the BBC took up the social media panic discourse on August 9th and reported on the power of social media to bring together not only five, but 200 people for forming a rioting “mob”. Media and politicians created the impression that the riots were orchestrated by “Twitter mobs”, “Facebook mobs” and “Blackberry mobs”. A few month ago we were told that we had “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook revolutions” in Egypt and Tunisia, and now we hear about “social media mobs” in the UK. So what to make of these claims?

And also, as usual in moral panics, the call for policing technology can be heard. The Daily Express (August 10th, 2011) wrote: ”Thugs and looters are thought to have sent messages via the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service to other troublemakers, alerting them to riot scenes and inciting further violence. Technology writer Mike Butcher said it was unbelievable the service had not already been shut down. He said: ’Mobile phones have become weaponised. It’s like text messaging with steroids – you can send messages to hundreds of people that cannot be traced back to you.’ Tottenham MP David Lammy appealed for BlackBerry to suspend the service“. The police published pictures of rioters recorded by CCTV and asked the public to identify the people. The mass media published these pictures. The Sun called for “naming and shaming a rioter” and for “shopping a moron”. The mass media also reported on citizens, who self-organized over social media in order to gather in affected neighbourhoods for cleaning the streets.

Blaming technology or popular culture for violence – the Daily Mirror blamed “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs“ for the riots – is an old and typical ideology that avoids engaging with the real societal causes of riots and unrest and promises easy solutions: policing, control of technology, surveillance. It neglects the structural causes of riots and how violence is built into contemporary societies. Focusing on technology (as cause of or solution for riots) is the ideological search for control, simplicity and predictability in a situation of high complexity, unpredictability and uncertainty. It is also an expression of fear. It projects society’s guilt and shame into objects. Explanations are not sought in complex social relations, but in the fetishism of things. Social media and technology-centrism, both in its optimistic form (“social media will help our communities to overcome the riots”, “social media and mobile phones should be surveilled by the police”, “Blackberrys should be forbidden”, “more CCTV surveillance is needed”, “CCTV will help us find and imprison all rioters”) and its pessimistic form (“social media triggered, caused, stimulated, boosted, orchestrated, organized or fanned violence”), is a techno-deterministic ideology that substitutes thinking about society by the focus on technology. Societal problems are reduced to the level of technology.

Let’s talk about the society in which these riots have taken place. Is it really a surprise that riots emerged in the UK,  a country with high socio-economic inequality and youth unemployment, in a situation of global economic crisis? The United Kingdom has a high level of income inequality, its Gini level was 32.4 in 2009 (0 means absolute equality, 100 absolute inequality), a level that is only topped by a few countries in Europe and that is comparable to the level of Greece (33.1) (data source: Eurostat). 17.3% of the UK population had a risk of living in poverty in 2009 (data source: Eurostat). In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate in the UK rose to 20.3%, the highest level since these statistics started being recorded in 1992.

The UK is not only one of the most advanced developed countries today in economic terms, it is at the same time a developing country in social terms with a lot of structurally deprived areas. Is it a surprise that riots erupted especially in East London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester?  The UK Department of Communities and Local Government reported in its analysis “The English Indices of Deprivation 2010”: “Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, the City of Kingston-upon Hull, Hackney and Tower Hamlets are the local authorities with the highest proportion of LSOAs amongst the most deprived in England. […] The north east quarter of London, particularly Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets continue to exhibit very high levels of deprivation“ (pages 1, 3). Decades of UK capitalist development shaped by deindustrialization and neoliberalism have had effects on the creation, intensification and extension of precariousness and deprivation.

Calls for more police, surveillance, crowd control and the blames of popular culture and social media are helpless. It is too late once riots erupt. One should not blame social media or popular culture, but the violent conditions of society for the UK riots. The mass media’s and politics’ focus on surveillance, law and order and the condemnation of social media will not solve the problems. A serious discussion about class, inequality and racism is needed, which also requires a change of policy regimes. The UK riots are not a “Blackberry mob”, not a “Facebook mob” and not a “Twitter mob”; they are the effects of the structural violence of neoliberalism and capitalism. Capitalism, crisis and class are the main contexts of unrests, uproars and social media today.

This article was first published Christian Fuchs: Information – Society – Technology & Media.