Scottish computer expertise proves Twitter innocent in English riots

Thursday 8 December 2011

A study of 2.4 million Twitter messages from the time of the English riots has found that politicians and other commentators were wrong to claim that social media played an important role in inciting and organising the disturbances.

A multi-disciplinary research team, including Computer Science experts from the University of St Andrews, has found instead that Twitter was a force for good, helping to mobilise the post-riot clean up.

The study was led by Professor Rob Procter, of the University of Manchester, and funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee).

Using St Andrews’ world-leading expertise in cloud computing, Dr Alex Voss from the School of Computer Science was part of the team that has shed new light on the effect of social media on the English riots this August.

Cloud computing allows large-scale computing facilities to be accessed and shared by many different users over the Internet.  For this new study, Dr Voss and his colleagues were able to quickly set up dozens of computers to work on the millions of messages that were posted during and after the riots.

Dr Voss said, “The cloud computing environment at St Andrews meant that we could quickly set up a multi-computer environment that could analyse a large volume of information quickly and accurately. Without cloud computing, this would have been practically impossible.”

The study is published today (8 December) in The Guardian newspaper as part of its Reading the Riots investigation.

Professor Procter, who is based at The University’s Manchester e-Research Centre, 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 of 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.

Professor Procter added: “Only after a period of time does the influence of mainstream media organisations become critical for determining a rumour’s credibility.

“But we do find the mainstream media is perfectly capable of picking up and publishing unverified information from social media without adhering to the usual standard of fact checking.

“Consequently, some stories of this nature, though never verified, go unchallenged.”

The research team of the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, St Andrews, Wolverhampton and UCL, draws on the expertise of a wide range of disciplines within the social sciences and computer science.

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.”


Note to Editors

Dr Alex Voss is available for interview on 01334 46 3262.

For University of Manchester media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
[email protected]

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Issued by the University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager, on 01334 467227, email [email protected]

Ref: Twitter 081211

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