Visualization of the Week: Social media and the UK riots

Did social media catalyze UK violence? The Guardian casts doubt on that conclusion.

The recent violence in the U.K. has led some in the British government to propose banning people from social networks during times of civic unrest. Prime Minister David Cameron told an emergency session of Parliament:

Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

But The Guardian has analyzed some 2.5 million tweets relating to the events in the U.K., and the newspaper’s findings challenge the government’s contention that Twitter and other social networks were used to organize violence.

More than 206,000 tweets — about 8% of the total — focused on coordinating clean-up efforts following the rioting and looting.

In the interactive visualization, you can see the relationship in the various communities where outbreaks of violence occurred between the events themselves and the surge of Twitter activity. In the majority of cases, Twitter activity increased after, not before, the violence.

Screenshot from the Guardian's Twitter riot visualization
Twitter traffic during U.K. riots. Click to see the full interactive visualization

The Guardian says it will continue to examine this database in the coming weeks, just as the British government continues its inquiries into the relationship between social media and violence.

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