Tuesday, 9 August 2011

When Twitter/Facebook-Empowered "Flash Mobs" Turn Violent

"What Sparked the London Riots?" shouts CNN this morning.  

Opportunity and the tools to organize some mayhem, that's all.

When "The Media" does nothing but report without offering real human insights, they leave the door open for more carnage by leaving the impression that there is something deeply dark and mysterious taking place among average folks.  Nope, it's just a bunch of young people 'having fun'.  And "The Media" does it all the time:
  • "The People of Tottenham Take to the Streets and Riot in Anger over..."
  • "Vancouverites Turn to Violence in Rage Over Hockey Loss"
  • "Muslims Worldwide Resort to Jihad in Response to..."
  • "Torontonians Loot Shops in G8 Protest Against Globalisation"
When "The Media", a field that employs just as many people of average to low intelligence as any other, lumps everyone in an area or culture or religion together in a headline or article together following an incident of one kind or other, stereotypes are not just perpetuated or reinforced, they are actually created in the minds of many.

Was I the only one watching YouTube videos of hundreds of people 'taking over' a London train station for a 'spontaneous' dance performance and feeling vaguely anxious?  I mean, if those well-meaning folks could do that...

I was a teen once.  I was a young man in my early 20's.  Had I been handed a device back then that I could carry in my pocket that would buzz and light up with an invitation to every young person within 50 kilometres to gather together in an anonymous mob downtown and either dance in synchrony, OR wreck havoc on stores and the vehicles of adults I didn't know, I have to be honest, I'd have leapt onto my bike or on the bus and, typing excitedly to every similarly-aged person I knew, I'd have invited them all to join in.  Why?  I don't know, it would just have seemed far too much 'fun' (read: 'illicit', 'adrenaline-inducing', 'social' and 'adult') for me not to. 

As so many clever people have hastened to point out, the current rioting in the UK is NOT about the police shooting a black man.  Yes, like the G8 protests in Toronto last summer, a specific or obscure 'cause celebre' gives these young males (and a few females) a cover story for letting their lack of ability to assess actions with long-term consequences and their raging hormones run wild in the streets as anonymous members of a crowd, but it is NOT about the cause, it's about feeling empowered to do something 'wild and crazy' without retribution.  It started, ironically, with "flash mobs" gathering in public areas to dance, it evolved into some ne'r-do-wells seizing upon the same tools to engage in criminal action under the cover of a 'cause celebre".

Much has been made of the power of these new technologies to do good, to incite change in repressive dictatorships in the Middle East, to give average people a voice in 'just saying no' to 'push marketing', but what we're seeing now is how a simple thing like an instantaneous, free, local and global news service like Twitter, or Facebook status updates can wreck havoc.  What is not being
reported is that the appeal of using these free 'services' is NOT just the ability to post some interesting information, it is the irresistible thrill that comes from being the first to post about something.  It makes the poster's ego burst with hedonistic pride to believe, if only for a few seconds, that they are the first, the most popular, an integral member of a private club of popular leaders, to share new information.

When that thrill is combined with a peculiar aspect of human nature that is the tendency we all have to feel anonymous in a crowd, AND the freshly discovered area of the brain that is still being 'wired' through our teens into our early 20's that allows adults to assess and evaluate the long-term consequences of actions that might "let-off steam" (read: "pump-up adrenaline"), but are destructive (sadly particularly powerful in some 13-15 year old boys with access to cans of spray paint), we get violence, arson and looting.

I've said this before, but I'll do so again, something peculiar happened to me about 24-25, I 'suddenly' felt mature.  Inside my brain something finished developing and I became aware of the gravity of life.  I 'suddenly' became concerned about career and family and property ownership, whereas prior to that watershed period, I was largely focused on what pleased my brain most on a superficial level: sailboarding, girlfriends, fast vehicles, having fun.  This phenomenon has now been proven to be real, an area of the brain that only finishes it's re-wiring development in the mid-20's, a neuron cross-road that controls our assessment of actions and consequences.

What I find interesting, looking back, was that there was a small percentage of the population of males my age who never did make that transition.  There were guys who just continued to like doing things that were NOT positive for themselves or their society or family, like blowing things up and stealing, telling tall tales to explain away or cover up their actions.  Many of this cohort were pathological liars like Casey Anthony (mother of the tottler who was killed and who's skeletal remains found near their house), some are sociopaths and a few are psychopaths with a strong desire to lead a group of willing worshippers.

These types do not exist solely in Middle Eastern dictatorships, folks, they live among every human population everywhere.  They are the kids down the street, they are your kids and mine.  Give these disturbed, lacking-in-empathy youngsters a tool like Twitter or Facebook status updates on a smart phone and a 'cause celebre' and you just might get a riot.  You just might get a LOT of riots.  Why not?  Rioting is a LOT of fun and they are free to throw, free to participate in and have zero consequences for the participants!  (Well, near zero, but at that age we all thought consequences would happen to one of our anonymous fellow participants, not to us.)

So what's the answer?  

The answer is that same as it always has been, society stepping in and saying we don't like it.  Adults have NEVER liked potential harm to their hard work or infants, to their property or themselves, or their aging parents.  To prevent it we came up with laws, legals systems and police forces to uphold the laws and control the crazies among us.  We came up with morals and ethics and 'societal norms' and we all collectively pitch in to maintain these norms.  Lately these 'norms' include speaking up in public to chastise the parent who slaps their child to discipline them, or talking behind the back of the parents who allows their child to play in the street unsupervised, or glaring collectively at the drunk on the bus, etc.  The 'norms' evolve.

In the case of the growing tendency of young people to use their cell phones to gather together virtually instantly in "flash mobs" (NOTE: they are NOT "gangs" with structure and relationships, they are merely "mobs") it is going to come down to both the police AND the general public stepping up and doing their job, lecturing our kids that this is not acceptable behaviour, monitoring what kids are up to on their cell phones both by parents, the police and self-policing software by Twitter and Facebook, adults gathering in the streets amongst the kids do to quell their enthusiasm for wrecking havoc and reinforcing "the right thing" by doing so after the fact and forcing the youngsters to do the clean up en masse.  (And much of their 'flash-mob organizing' is nothing more than a Facebook status update getting passed along to different groups of other 'friends' saying "FM outside Charing Cross in 20 mins" or "Meet @ Main & 2nd @ 7:05".)

Society has always had to adapt to the misuse of new technologies to do harm, oftentimes well as is the case in most countries where gun possession is illegal, sometimes poorly, as in the US where profit and juvenile pleasure drives the law makers to allow gun makers to sell them indiscriminately.  On the 'harmless' side of new technology after the phone was invented Telemarketers gradually became regulated because society in general got tired of being interrupted in the middle of dinner, but phone-tapping was also approved to monitor criminal activity.  For reasons very similar to the gun problem in the US, TV advertising frequency went largely unregulated and now the Internet has given the public the ability to turn the ads off, but the Internet has also brought with it a HUGE amount of criminal activity.  We're rushing to catch up and plug the holes in the dyke, but the latest rash of 'flash mob' organization means we're going to have to work faster and more effectively to regulate new technology.

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