Wednesday, 4 January 2012

#Riots, incoming

There's a rather superb piece in Wired entitled "#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You". It charts how our increasingly sophisticated technology has reached a point at which is has become a tool for violent mass action of a variety of types:
...on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a rash of more mysterious, more malicious-seeming crowds in which technology appeared to play a central role. Riots over four days in Britain spread across the country and caused millions of dollars in property damage. US cities struggled with their own disorder: In Kansas City, Missouri, gunfire injured three after hundreds of high school students descended on an open-air shopping mall, while Philadelphia imposed a curfew to fight a long string of surprise gatherings by teens. At least five cities saw an innovative form of robbery, where a large group of kids would simultaneously run into a store, take items off the shelves, and run out again. To be sure, technology wasn’t at the root of all the crowd mayhem: For example, an investigation of a group robbery in Germantown, Maryland, determined that the thieves had hatched their plan on a bus, not online. But with most of these events, there was some sort of electronic trail (Facebook, Twitter, texts, BBM) that showed how they coalesced.

Groping for what to call these events, the media christened them “flash mobs”—lumped them in, that is, with the fad in which large crowds carry out a public performance and then post the results on YouTube. So at around the same time that Fox was running a lighthearted flash-mob reality show called Mobbed, and Friends With Benefits, the high-grossing rom-com starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, featured a flash-mob dance in Times Square, pundits and public officials suddenly began railing against flash mobs as a threat to public order. The convenience store knock-overs became “flash mob robberies,” or even “flash robs.” “The evolution of flash mobs from pranks to crime and revolution,” declared one of my local papers, the San Francisco Examiner, after the hacktivist group Anonymous had helped to create subway shutdowns.

The London riots are of course a perfect example of where several "flash riots" started to co-operate across the capital, and formed a self organising and self perpetuating cycle, one only broken by the pouring in of truly prodigious numbers of police. So what causes this?

Stott boils down the violent potential of a crowd to two basic factors. The first is what he and other social psychologists call legitimacy—the extent to which the crowd feels that the police and the whole social order still deserve to be obeyed. In combustible situations, the shared identity of a crowd is really about legitimacy, since individuals usually start out with different attitudes toward the police but then are steered toward greater unanimity by what they see and hear. Paul Torrens, a University of Maryland professor who builds 3-D computer models of riots and other crowd events, imbues each agent in his simulations with an initial Legitimacy score on a scale from 0 (total disrespect for police authority) to 1 (absolute deference). Then he allows the agents to influence one another. It’s a crude model, but it’s useful in seeing the importance of a crowd’s initial perception of legitimacy. A crowd where every member has a low L will be predisposed to rebel from the outset; a more varied crowd, by contrast, will take significantly longer to turn ugly, if it ever does.

It’s easy to see how technology can significantly change this starting position. When that tweet or text or BBM blast goes out declaring, as the Enfield message did, that “police can’t stop it,” the eventual crowd will be preselected for a very low L indeed. As Stott puts it, flash-mob-style gatherings are special because they “create the identity of a crowd prior to the event itself,” thereby front-loading what he calls the “complex process of norm construction,” which usually takes a substantial amount of time. He hastens to add that crowd identity can be pre-formed through other means, too, and that such gatherings also have to draw from a huge group of willing (and determined) participants. But the technology allows a group of like-minded people to gather with unprecedented speed and scale. “You’ve only got to write one message,” Stott says, “and it can reach 50, or 500, or even 5,000 people with the touch of a button.” If only a tiny fraction of this quickly multiplying audience gets the message and already has prepared itself for disorder, then disorder is what they are likely to create.

The second factor in crowd violence, in Stott’s view, is simply what he calls power: the perception within a crowd that it has the ability to do what it wants, to take to the streets without fear of punishment. This, in turn, is largely a function of sheer size—and just as with legitimacy, small gradations can make an enormous difference. We often think about flash mobs and other Internet-gathered crowds as just another type of viral phenomenon, the equivalent of a video that gets a million views instead of a thousand. But in the physical world, the distance separating the typical from the transformational is radically smaller than in the realm of bits. Merely doubling the expected size of a crowd can create a truly combustible situation.

I'm not going to post any more of the piece, as its necessary to read the whole thing. It touches on what I believe will be one of the defining conflicts of this decade, that of centralised Governments fighting against their decentralised citizenry.

A critical element of Bewegungskrieg, manoeuvre warfare, is the ability to dispel as much of the fog of war as possible, in order to create an environment in which you are able to 'see' more than your opponent. With that ability you can pick the points you want to fight at, choosing the ground, and pulling his forces apart piece by piece. Boyd's idea of tempo is critical to this, shifting your own activities to a higher pace in order to operate within the OODA loop of your opponent.

Is there any purer expression of this concept than a networked leadership free group of rioters? They pour into an area, control it, draw in police, disperse, having achieved their 'goals' (occupy, loot, escape), almost always wholly intact, and reform elsewhere. In doing so they exhaust police resources, money and manpower, and every victory will draw in more supporters.

Their lines of communication were impossible to disrupt, sometimes encrypted and often hosted overseas, Twitter, Facebook, BBM. They provided a highly accurate overview of the battlespace, in real time, to all participants. The data was a flow, allowing participants to take what they needed, without drowning them in excess data. It was elegant, beautiful, and terrifying.

Project forward and I think we will see the end of fixed position protest as the primary tool particularly of youth protest. Instead we will see 'raid' style protests, with groups meeting, motivating themselves through numbers, then breaking up to cause disruption and get attention for their cause.

I also think we will see more riots, and those riots will grow harder and harder to put down. For the time being, no one on the rioting side is trying to target the police, but there is every chance that will change if there is some precipitating incident. It is simply a matter of confidence, once the mob believes it can attack the police without fear of reprisal, it will. Simple as that.

To deal with that the police will grow more militarised, using what looks more and more like army equipment in order to put down riots and protests, for fear that they will grow and spread out of control. However, they will always be a step behind, using a rigid command structure, having to operate (broadly) within the law, and constantly disrupted by an opponent who can move faster than they can.

Its important to ask, what if there had been a few thousand more rioters? What if they had had a little more confidence in their cause, and faced down police? Or simply kept operating within the OODA loop of the police no matter how many of them there were? It's not hard to imagine this would be possible. The only way of stopping it at that point is to up the ante... and then it looks a bit like this:

There is a coming rule set change when it comes to protest and civil disruption. Occupy has created one model for a fixed protest which can retain elements of manoeuvre, the London riots provided another for full blown civil conflict. If, and I believe this will happen, with the Euro about to fall and recession looming, there are 21st century riots akin to the Poll Tax riots, they will be supported by a resilient and networked communications structure. There will be fewer and fewer confrontations with the police on their own terms.

The civil conflicts and protests of the future will bear little resemblance to the past. Militarised police vs networked smart mobs, that's the future.


  1. I think the role of TV is being under-played in all this. Just as Al-Jazera was crucial to the Arab Spring (providing much of the coverage and research which people then spread via social media), so too was the TV news, rolling and traditional, in the riots - as it was providing wall to wall advertising to riot. 'Riot now, steal stuff and don't be caught' was the message the news reports were giving out in effect.

    That also reflects what has often been found in other areas of social network research - that the stories people pass on come from 'traditional' media outlets.

    The implication? Worrying about whether TV news should treat rioting similarly to suicides (i.e. worrying about how coverage may trigger copy-cat actions) is probably more relevant than worrying about BBM.

  2. Mark,

    I don't disagree with you at all about the role of TV. I think it has a critical impact and is part of the confidence building mechanism. I think all media forms are part of this in fact, TV, radio, newspapers, online new sources etc. However this is where I think the role of technology is key.

    In previous years however, those sources were at home, so you got stoked up, then went out to find people, possibly losing your motivation on the way, or not finding the event you wanted to get to, without easy access to updated real time information.

    TV and other media also don't provide you with the information you need to remain mobile and out of police custody in the same was as Twitter for Facebook can. Again, real time information is critical to this.

    I think its about the intersection of all forms of media which is interesting, and the fact the technology which delivers it now fits in our pockets.