Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Twitter - how looters use it and how you might be starting your own riots

Sorry non biking post today. It has been interesting watching how Twitter has worked during the London Riots, and I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to explain to people how it is being used by looters, and how to stop you inadvertently starting your own riot or at the least unknowingly assisting people in spreading disinformation for the benefit of the looters. Before I go into how innocent people may be assisting them – let’s have a quick look at what the looters are trying to achieve and finally we will look at how you can make sure you are not adding fuel to the fire (excuse the pun) inadvertently.

    So what do you need if you want to start your own riot.
  1.  Lack of police – done by making sure they are spread as thin as possible over a large area 
  2.  A sufficient amount of people to have enough critical mass to get the riot on the move.


So how do you do this? Well there isn’t some great master plan – yes amongst the more hardened criminals there is the use of Black Berry messaging (encrypted), but generally speaking to get the necessary critical mass you need then the use of Twitter is invaluable. The young kids following Twitter “looking for action” are your foot soldiers and cannon fodder. Even if you fail in your objective of getting enough of them mobilized in an area, even four or five kids snooping around looking for action will divert police time and resources.

So say you main target is town X – all you need to do is send messages out about towns Y and Z as well as X. The organised professional looters will know what that the main target is X and will be focused there and there will be enough of them to guarantee the nucleus of a critical mass. Meanwhile messages will be going out saying there is a riot happening and it is all “kicking off” in town Y and Z as well. Maybe just maybe something will happen in towns Y and Z also – if it does all the better as the police will be even further stretched, if not at least a few people will turn up to divert enough resources.

If a young looter hears it is all happening in town Y at JD Sports and he turns up there and there is nothing happening – by the time there are ten or so of them the crowd mentality will kick off, one guy will start by a quick kick of the metal shutters followed by a second looter giving it a harder kick and before you know it they are in full flow – then the false Twitter post of a riot becomes a reality.

Now we get to the point of how Twitter users are either deliberately or inadvertently helping them.

If I am looter I send out my false message that there is a riot in Town Y. He will have one or two mates who will either re-tweet this and then the army of Muppet tweeters will start re-tweeting it for him. What is a Muppet Tweeter and are you Muppet Tweeter?

A Muppet Tweeter is someone who is desperate for followers and will send out anything just to be notice – just generally a desperate attention seeker and basically of no value to how Tweeting in general.

Let’s ask a question – what is the point of you tweeting “Riot in town #Y buildings are burning #LondonRiots” – do you think your group of 5 followers from some far off country are desperate to hear your news? Are they waiting with baited breath for your next piece of investigative journalism or are you just attention seeking? Do you not think that just maybe anyone following Twitter will have searched with #Y and #LondonRiots already and already seen the post you are re-tweeting? Yes of course they have, all you have achieved with your re-tweet or new post is to increase the rumour mill, if enough people believe a lie it becomes the truth.

If enough people do the same as you – everyone will think the riot is actually happening – looters from the area around Town Y will start turning up in numbers and then false Tweet feed will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


So that’s the negative message – how can we as individuals stop this from happening and also what could the authorities do?


  1. Do not re-tweet something people are using the same hash tags for searches as you. 
  2. Unless you have something of actual value – some information that you have actually witnessed then don’t bother tweeting it. 
  3. Find a person on Twitter who is actually in the area in question and follow them, that way you will get the actual events not some made up story.
  4. Realise that 5 kids hanging on a street corner is not a riot 
  5. Think before you Tweet – are you adding value to the information people are desperately searching for or are you just adding to the rumour mill? Remember to quote the WW2 phrase - loose talk costs HD TV sets (OK I adapted it a bit).


As for the authorities.

What the supposedly tech savvy police and local authorities need to do is to start sending out authorised tweets – if we see a tweet is from a police account or local authority, then we will know it is the truth and not some rumour or deliberate miss-information. But the problem with this is the procedures the police feel they have to go through in order to deal with health and safety and liability. If say for example the police send out a message saying things are quiet currently in town #Y and then it kicks off later someone is bound to say – I went for a drink in Town Y and ended up being mugged, it is all the police fault. Well these are extraordinary times and it requires a bit of bottle (not another pun please). Police should send out a message saying something like “Town #Y has no rioting currently, all is quite but please keep away for now”. 

The authorities must start understand that Twitter and social feeds are about FAST news - they can't wait an hour (or even 5 minutes to go through reporting channels before sending out a message) it needs to be fast and current. They need to sit down and set out a relevant procedure to achieve this aim.

Instead the police and local authority are just chasing around the Twitter feeds like a lost chicken and being drawn into false information as much as the rest of us – yes I am sure they know some of the “proper” accounts to follow as well though.


So now for something different.

A couple of funny things from the riots

Firstly someone received a mail from a friend abroad – in it the friend asked what JD Sports had done to annoy so many people and to make it a target of rioting.

Secondly a great picture from the Brixton riot – the girl in the photo was caught for looting the local Curry’s Electrical Store – the only thing being that it was a store she worked at during the day!

That’s staff loyalty for you



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