I have more than a passing interest in last night’s disorder/riot in Birmingham, as I lived there for six months this past year, have many friends there, and developed a real affection for the city. Growing increasingly concerned at the end of the work day here in Toronto, I logged on to Twitter and found it virtually impossible to get factual real-time information. Initial reports, corroborated by photos, of about 200 young people rampaging and looting in City Centre quickly escalated into a torrent of alarming reports about fires and escalating violence which were tweeted without verification and then retweeted extensively.
A major case in point, was the claim that Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital was on fire:
This was, of course, not true:
People tweeting responsibly seemed outnumbered by the ill-informed as well as trouble-makers, who rushed to liken what was happening in Birmingham with London through the use of conjoined hashtags #londonriots #birminghamriots.
Consider the many tweets about the fate of the iconic bull statue in front of the Birmingham Bullring shopping mall:
Someone went to a lot of trouble to post that photo but I didn’t find out the truth until the light of day:
And on and on it went. This post is about a bookstore outside of City Centre, very close to the flat where I lived:
All of this misinformation made it difficult to know the truth when people started tweeting about a police station being set on fire in Handsworth.
This one turned out to be true:
I’d like to believe that most people are smart enough to seek reputable sources of information during a crisis, but from my vantage point it appeared that trusted sources were few and far between, and often behind the news. I read many tweets from Birmingham residents who couldn’t find out what was happening locally because they said local television coverage was focussed on London.
And then there was this:
The lack of information led many people to follow Redbrick, the University of Birmingham’s student newspaper, which was liveblogging and attempting to curate information. They did a particularly good job of debunking reports of the violence spreading outside City Centre.
People were also following live updates from @caseyrain at http://birminghamriots2011.tumblr.com/
In the end, I sorted through all of this mess by tweeting people I know and trust who live in Birmingham who responded with the following:
When I logged on to Twitter today, it appeared that legions of Birmingham citizens had arrived in City Centre this morning to help with the clean-up, but found their services not necessary. Meanwhile, there are rumours of more public disorder tonight.
An account from West Midlands Police about what happened in Birmingham last night can be found here.
For other blog posts about the riots and Twitter, you may want to check out Adam Westbrook and Andy Dickinson.