A study of 2.6 million Twitter messages from the time of the riots has found that politicians and other commentators were wrong to claim the social media platform played an important role in inciting and organising the disturbances.
A multidisciplinary team involving researchers from the University of Leicester in a JISC funded study found that instead, Twitter was a force for good, helping to mobilise the post-riot clean up.
It is published today (8 December) in the Guardian newspaper as part of its Reading the Riots investigation.
The study, led by Professor Rob Procter, of The University of Manchester, involved Dr Farida Vis, Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester as well as her research student Yana Manykhina. Two other members of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication, Dr Paul Reilly and Dr Scott Wright, were also involved.
Professor Procter said: “In August this year, social unrest spilled over onto the streets of English cities and the summer riots were the largest public disorder events in recent history.
“Politicians and commentators were quick to claim that social media played an important role in inciting and organising riots, calling for sites such as Twitter to be closed should events of this nature happen again.
“But our study found no evidence of significance in the available data that would justify such a course action in respect to Twitter.
“In contrast, we do find strong evidence that Twitter was a valuable tool for mobilising support for the post-riot clean up and for organising specific clean up activities.”
Also according to the research team, rumours ‘break’ quickly in Twitter and the mainstream media lag behind citizen reports.
Examples include rumours the London Eye had been set on fire and animals had been released from the London Zoo – which both turned out to be untrue.
Other stories turned out to be true such as the burning down of a Miss Selfridge shop in Manchester.
Dr Vis said the team had engaged in cutting-edge research to deliver findings so rapidly. She said: “Media and communication studies have played an important role in such cutting edge research and it demonstrates the need to further invest in innovating research methods, and to build strong inter disciplinary teams.
She said: “The research team draws on the expertise of a wide range of disciplines within the social sciences that are combined with expertise in computer science. This combination allows the team to exploit the rich data sources and data manipulation methods available today while drawing on the rich understanding of social phenomena provided by the social sciences.
“I have been working with computer scientists since early 2008 and have been ahead of the curve in that sense. As an active Twitter user I add a user’s perspective to the analysis and am very familiar with the different conventions of Twitter use. Furthermore, I watched the riots unfold on Twitter as they happened and this has further highlighted the importance of researchers who also understand these platforms from the inside as well as having the necessary critical methodological and analytical skills to make sense of the data. Interpreting the data is a strength that media and communication experts can really bring to such material.”
Professor Barrie Gunter, Head of the Department of Media and Communication, added: “This research is very timely in that academic findings often appear far too late after critical events. I think this study demonstrates not only the social activist roles played by social media platforms (and roles not played by them even though wrongly attributed to them) but also shows how new research tools can be applied to rich and vast datasets to produce quick turnaround research that can contribute usefully to public policy debates and the explanation of events.
“Leicester is emerging as a hub of excellence in respect of socially relevant cutting edge research on the use and impact of social media and the digital communications technologies that underpin them. Our work is concerned with the application of these technologies as tools for political and social activism, health and well-being, commercial consumerism, and with understanding important issues of personal privacy protection and security associated with their use.”
Dr Vis, who is co-authoring a book on social media http://researchingsocialmedia.org/, said: “We believe that the excitement about new analytical methods enabled by pervasive computerisation needs to be married with the conceptual, theoretical and methodological achievements of different social science disciplines.
The research team consisted of researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, St Andrews, Wolverhampton and UCL. The analysis of messages exchanged on Twitter during the riots was undertaken through a larger, JISC funded project called NeISS: National e-Infrastructure for Social Science Simulation.
The NeISS project aims to introduce social scientists to new ways of thinking about social problems.
Dr Torsten Reimer, the JISC programme manager responsible for NeISS, said: “The influence of social media on society is growing rapidly so we need a much better understanding of their impact on people’s lives.
“In the case of Twitter this means analysing gigantic amounts of data, constantly created by millions of people, – a task that requires new tools and methods, supported by a broader digital infrastructure for research.
“We are pleased that we had the chance to support the NeISS project team working in collaboration with the Guardian to demonstrate how this infrastructure can be used to understand what happened during the riots in August.”
Notes for editors
The multidisciplinary team was able to exploit the rich data sources and data manipulation methods available today while drawing on the rich understanding of social phenomena provided by the social sciences. For more information visit www.analysingsocialmedia.org
• Dr Farida Vis from Leicester University led on the development of coding frames used to analyse the dataset.
• Dr Alex Voss from the University of St Andrews provided the collaborative virtual research environment that underpinned the collaboration as well as computational and storage resources required for computer-based analysis of the dataset.
• Professor Mike Thelwall of the Statistical Cybermetrics Group at the University of Wolverhampton provided computational tools to assist with the analysis of subjective content in tweets such as opinions.
• Dr Andy Hudson-Smith and his team from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL provided support for the coding of tweets.
The team would like to acknowledge the invaluable financial support from JISC which made this work possible.
For more information about the collaboration, see the website at www.analysingsocialmedia.org.