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Twitter didn't fuel U.K. riots, study says

Social network was a source for good works, cleanup

December 8, 2011 01:42 PM ET

Computerworld - Contradicting the U.K. government's contention that social networks helped fuel riots last summer, a study shows that Twitter didn't incite rioters but was actually used as a tool for positive work.

Twitter was not used to encourage people to riot, it was used to help mobilize the post-riot cleanup, according to a study from the Joint Information Systems Committee, a research group composed of educators from U.K. universities.

"Politicians and commentators were quick to claim that social media played an important role in inciting and organizing riots, calling for sites such as Twitter to be closed should events of this nature happen again," said Rob Procter, a professor at the University of Manchester and leader of the study.

The study analyzed tweets that were sent during the rioting.

"But our analysis found no evidence of significance in the data we have analyzed that would justify such a course of action in respect to Twitter," he added. "In contrast, we do find strong evidence that Twitter was a valuable tool for mobilizing support for the post-riot cleanup and for organizing specific cleanup activities."

Riots broke out in August after police shot and killed a 29-year-old man. Rioting and looting quickly spread to cities across the U.K., shaking the country and drawing worldwide attention.

Days after the riots began, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he was considering a ban on social networking to help put an end to the riots. In discussions with Scotland Yard and U.K. intelligence agencies, Cameron said the ban was considered so rioters couldn't use social networks to coordinate criminal activity.

However, the Joint Information Systems Committee's study showed that social networks were used more for positive efforts than illegal ones.

"The influence of social media on society is growing rapidly, so we need a much better understanding of their impact on people's lives," said Torsten Reimer, a program manager with the committee. "In the case of Twitter, this means analyzing gigantic amounts of data, constantly created by millions of people, a task that requires new tools and methods."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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