Riots, Martians and Spring-Heeled Jack: How a bit of panic makes us weird, and how Twitter sometimes doesn’t help

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As you may be aware, there has been a spot of bother in England over the last few days. Rioters across London, Birmingham, Manchester and other towns and cities went on the rampage, with no clear explanation as yet. However, something else was going on behind the carnage. Something even more fluid and inexplicable than events in London.

These were the Phantom Riots.

Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger seem to have been the media of choice both for those gathering rioters and for more IT-aware police forces trying to calm situations. But they were also vehicles for misinformation – suddenly every township had rocks being thrown and Asdas on fire, every couple of teenagers in hoodies were a feral mob intent on bringing down civilisation. No evidence was offered for these events, but social media was sowing fear and confusion at a time when we could have done with less of this.

It’s not surprising though, because communities can have a tendency to jump at shadows. In this case the shadows were rampaging teenagers (which, it turns out, wasn’t quite the truth). Sometimes the shadows are, well, something else…

Take, for instance, The War of the Worlds. Everyone’s heard of how Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation triggered panics and fears of Martians invading America. However, this wasn’t confined to the US; in 1949, a Spanish-language version of the play lead to riots in Ecuador, with the same thing happening in Chile, 1944. Sometimes the enemy isn’t from Mars; last year there was panic on the streets of Georgia when a fake news broadcast indicated that Russia was repeating its 2008 invasion of the country. Blackberry Messenger may be the current medium demon for those wanting to blame the medium instead of the message, but it’s clear that TV and radio can also lead to panics – maybe what’s needed are better digital curation skills rather than kneejerk reactions.

Sometimes panics don’t arise because of fears of invasion – sometimes there are insidious forces lurking within communities waiting to strike. For two years, between 1788 and 1790, the women of London were terrorised by the London Monster, an attacker who would stalk his victims before stabbing them in the nose or buttocks. A man was arrested, but still people reported being attacked by the Monster, who seemed to have slipped into the cracks of urban mythology. Fifty years later, Spring-Heeled Jack began his reign of terror, a bogeyman stalking the rooftops of London and beyond, making appearences in my neck of the woods, at Himley and Old Hill in the West Midlands.

(This seems like a good point to link to an old post of mine, about the time in fifties Glasgow when the children went hunting the Gorbals Vampire.)

Then there are the times when people en masse just start acting strangely – uncontrollable dancing in 16th century Strasbourg, inexplicable laughter in Tanzania, 1962, and, well, witch-hunts in general. Given the almost unexplainable way the London riots took hold, spread across the country then stopped over the course of just a few days, you’ve got to wonder if an element of mass hysteria has been involved.

The riots seem to have calmed down, and Twitter is no longer jumping at its own shadow. There have been calls to ban Blackberry Messenger, as if this will stop rioters from communicating, as if BBM is some sort of totem that needs to be destroyed to prevent the corruption of the nation’s youth. This isn’t the case, but there are lessons to be learned from the way in which we have engaged with technology during the last few days, for while the instincts behind rumours and panics are nothing new, the speed at which they can be spread is now unprecedented. And yet, while we can talk darkly of exorcising phantoms, maybe the easiest way to deal with this is simple and threefold:

Stop.

Think.

Check.

Or, by it’s more traditional name:

Common Sense.

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