From riots in London over the shooting of a suspected arms dealer, to flash mobs in Philadelphia that turn dangerous, communities have seen the worst that social media can organize. It’s enough to make some politicians consider shutting down access to the services.
Naturally, critics liken this tactic to the Egyptian government’s attempt to quash dissident speech. They point to the fact that Twitter and Facebook have also been used to organize cleanup crews in London, and to help streamline response to natural disasters.
Moreover, as one public relations expert pointed out in the New York Times: “There were riots long before there was BlackBerry Messenger.”
Rather than ask what to do about the tools, then, we might be using them to ask what to do about the problems driving the rioters.
After all, as many business communications experts point out, social media emphasizes “social.” People, particularly among the younger generations, use Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and numerous other tools to meet like-minded people, to share information and thoughts and feelings. The business that fails to meet its customers on their playing field misses the opportunity to build relationships – both with and among its customers – and thus, encourage customer loyalty.
What kind of loyalty could police and politicians build?
Typically, both police and politicians use social media as broadcast tools. With some exceptions, neither seems comfortable using the tools for any but the most generalized engagement. Conversation occurs with whichever civilian feels like speaking up, and government officials get kudos just for using the tools at all.
We may want to change that.
In London, until recently it was widely assumed that the rioters consisted of poor black youth — until many were found to be white and not poor.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter specifically addressed black youth who have been using social media to organize destructive flash mobs in that city.
In Wisconsin, mobs of black youth who attacked dozens of state fairgoers raised questions about whether the attacks were racially motivated (and whether social media were involved).
Rather than talk about shutting down the social tools, or using them to “name and shame” (a counterproductive strategy for police), or focusing their attention on finding and arresting the wrongdoers, police and politicians might consider using them instead to “crowdsource” solutions to problems.
Remember: this is what social media users believe they are already doing. They share BlackBerry PINs and usernames, show up in one place and bond with one another. That this has a destructive result is incidental to the social forces at work.
This is a point made in an excellent analysis of the 2011 Vancouver rioting, which pulls together many different factors: physical geography, pre-existing and social conditions, cultural and sub-cultural norms, group psychology and of course, the “instigating event.”
Perhaps what police and politicians fear is that the answers to any questions they ask will reflect problems they can’t control or at the very least, can’t talk about. Jobs creation, racism, religious tension and anger towards the “welfare class” or immigrants are not topics that police typically address, nor that politicians typically take responsibility for.
So what should they do with the answers?
Use them to learn, not about the problems, but about the community itself. Notice who does the talking, who does the organizing, who does the listening but then acts. Invite community members to continue the conversations offline, both one on one and in groups. Notice social dynamics there, too. Don’t just “engage” – build relationships. Through those, civic pride.
They may not solve deeply ingrained social problems, but they could stop the next riot.
Christa Miller is co-author of the Dancing With Digital Natives chapter: Native in Blue: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities in Managing Today’s Police Officers. She is is a content creator and strategist specializing in public safety. Christa blogs about law enforcement use of social media at Cops 2.0, drawing on her experience as a law enforcement trade magazine reporter as well as her network of law enforcement professionals. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband and two sons.