By Tanya O’Carroll. Tanya is interning with our Cameras Everywhere Initiative. She is a Master’s candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Read her previous post on the authentication of citizen video in Syria and elsewhere. 

Almost as soon as riots exploded in the streets of London two weeks ago – indirectly sparked by protests over the shooting of 29 year old Mark Duggan – hundreds of videos and photos capturing the violence became available online. For days every major news outlet in the UK gave center stage to citizen-shot content, inviting people to send in their photos and videos to be published online. Some papers explicitly asked the public to participate in a virtual process of naming and shaming those responsible. Their efforts were accompanied by official sites like this one, set up by the Metropolitan police on Flickr, and unofficial sites, such as “Identify the London Rioters,” to collate photo and video evidence of rioters´ crimes.

We recently looked at the implications of crowd-sourced surveillance in the Vancouver riots and how this impinges upon sensitive issues like individual privacy, visual anonymity, due process and the presumption of innocence. Now, similar conversations are replaying in London with citizen-run sites like Catch a Looter (later removed by the author) claiming that their intentions were not “to cause a witch hunt…but to help identify possible criminals.” Prime Minister David Cameron has come down decidedly in favour of allowing photos of the looters to be published promising that “phony human rights” concerns will not get in the way of catching those responsible.

Rather than reiterate these discussions, which you can read up on elsewhere, I would like to make some observations about the wider part played by citizen photos and videos in contributing to the UK public’s response to the riots – and whether this reveals a dark side to citizen media when it comes to  moments of public panic.

Lining Up the Virtual Suspects… And the Virtual Spectators

Screenshot of the Daily Mail Online from August 9, 2011
Screenshot of the Daily Mail Online from August 9, 2011

On August 9th, after four consecutive nights of rioting and looting in London, the Daily Mail Online homepage showed twelve photos of suspects released by the police and also released its own photo archive of the suspected, explicitly calling on the public to “get going” on them.

Plainly, the article was an invitation to citizens to join in the efforts of chasing down and punishing those who had been caught on camera in a context where criminal behavior and violence was still sweeping London’s streets, putting lives and livelihoods at risk.

Such actions raise questions about the individual rights of those whose faces were revealed, especially when they were those of minors. A wider point worth making is that these (or similar) images were published everywhere one turned for news, whether it was the Daily Mail and their curated archive of those responsible, or other news sites or citizen media blogs, etc. The images and videos replayed across these sites were so predominant that it quickly became difficult to see beyond the story that they reinforced – in the Prime Minister’s words, that this was “criminality, pure and simple.”

While citizen shot content gave spectators the sense of having a street eye understanding, it may have weakened the ability of the public to get a broader picture of what the riots were about.

The Role of “Riot Videos” in Building Public Narrative

Compare, for instance, two videos that emerged on YouTube after the riots broke out. The first video (below) was uploaded on YouTube on August 8th and shows a video of a bleeding teenager, who was later identified as Ashraf Haziq, being helped up from the ground by a group of youth, who then proceeded to rob him.

The video was republished by the Daily Mail with the caption “sickening moment heavily bleeding teenager is robbed in broad daylight by thugs who pretend to help him” and has since been featured on the Guardian, Channel 4 News and the Sun, among others. To date, it has over two million hits on YouTube and elicited such public outrage that Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned the video in a statement on the riots. The video, in many ways, has become the face of the “sick society” Cameron talks about – and it creates a strong visual image of the kinds of people who are to blame.

A second video – this one from a CNN news clip uploaded on YouTube on August 10th, also features a young man. In it, he is seen aggressively telling London Mayor Boris Johnson what he thinks about the riots. He starts by mentioning the closure of his local Connexions service, a national program that supported young people into education and employment, and then mentions the disappearance of EMA, an educational allowance that provided assistance to disadvantaged youth. This video has only 23,000 views compared to the 2 million of Ashraf Haziq’s mugging and was not shown on UK media.

Both present facets of the events as they unfolded in London; one shows the violence displayed in the riots by groups of youth, the other shows a young man from the Clapham area, where 1,000 youth had ransacked the high street just a day before, telling London’s mayor why people his age, in his community, might be joining in.

But it was the dramatic spectacle of violence caught on camera by a citizen that had an impact on the British public, rather than the video of a community voice trying to explain events. In fact, despite the tidal wave of “riot videos” posted online in the past two weeks, none seem to have added texture or complexity to the UK media’s narrative or public understanding of the riots. On the contrary, diverse voices are being best captured by traditional news interviews and analysis –with additional value added by live blogs like the Guardian’s, which seek out and contextualize social media sources.

Are We Seeing the Dark Side of Citizen Video?

It is not surprising that, in moments of public alarm, the analysis of “how” and “why” can become secondary to spectacle. In these moments, dramatic images and video can sometimes diminish the complexity of events – as well as our ability to interpret them. Critics, including Susan Sontag, have written about a “war porn” effect; that is, when a media environment saturated with shocking images and video of conflict weakens the ability of an audience to relate to or understand what’s really happening.

Is what we’re seeing now in the UK an example of “riot porn,” fuelled by the thousands of videos and photos taken by citizens during the events? Citizen media has been receiving much attention for informing our understanding of events in highly censored countries like Syria and Burma. But what about when crowd-sourcing of citizen shot video and photos – as has happened in the UK – ends up inadvertently simplifying events, rather than adding the expected layers and voices to our understanding?

Citizen content may not itself have caused the “riot porn effect” of UK media coverage. But it is worth noting that as more people contribute to the documenting of dramatic events, and participate in how that documentation is shared and used online, our ability to become virtual spectators may also diminish our ability to get the story that counts.

Carrying On The Conversation

At WITNESS, we are aware that video has the power to elicit strong emotional responses, which is why it can be a powerful tool for change. But we also emphasize the importance of issues like consent, safety/security, re-victimization, and context when it comes to how video is created and used. What do you see as the positive and negative side effects of more people having the power to capture and share video of dramatic events? What are the differences and grey areas between uses of citizen video in places like London, Syria and Vancouver when it comes to holding governments and individual citizens to account?

4 thoughts on “Did Citizen Media Help Get Us the Story That Counts in the London Riots?

  1. Riot Porn!?
    Thanks Anton for the alternative view, it gave me pause.
    An essential element of pornography is that it is manufactured, for the purposes of arousal.
    These scenes were real, evidence of how it is.
    Admittedly they do pander to Jo public’s penchant for rubbernecking.
    Was Cameron any better when he said that this was “criminality, pure and simple.”?
    Are we being duped by his simple analysis?

    How is all this different from the causes of dissatisfaction which are manufactured?
    The oppressed rioters have consumed that which has been manufactured.
    Are we to blame the dispossessed for: lack of education/fellow feeling, neediness?

    An education is very hard won and doesn’t always give satisfaction even if one has a degree in ‘contextualizing social media sources.’

  2. While your overall aims are laudable, I think that – in the case of the London riots – they are slightly misplaced.

    I appreciate and applaud your efforts to “emphasize the importance of issues like consent, safety/security, re-victimization, and context when it comes to how video is created and used”, but it is with your focus of context that I have the most concern (especially with regard to the London riots).

    The British people in general are getting slightly perturbed with others trying to develop a “context” for the rioters’ actions. They see it as an attempt to justify the looting of stores, the robbery of citizens and the wholesale destruction of businesses and entire communities. At the very least, it is seen as an attempt to shoehorn political agendas into the overall debate on the back of what was essentially anarchy on the British streets.

    It may be possible to calmly and objectively focus on the reasons behind the riots in the future. But for now, the sight of an injured student being robbed while he bled from an earlier attack, the footage of a man being dragged off his moped while he desperately tried to flee, the video of a furniture store that had been part of the community for generations burning to the ground, all of these images make it difficult to ordinary law-abiding citizens to really care about disappearing social programs or lack of opportunities for young people or any other “context”. Not for now at least.

    Besides, I’m not all that convinced that context would be sought if most of the citizen videos were of police beating unarmed civilians. I get the impression that there would be universal condemnation immediately.

    Other than that, interesting post.

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