Officers were overwhelmed by the volume of information posted online, leading to confusion over where to deploy resources.
Four days into the England riots, Terry Sweeney, gold commander of Greater Manchester police, had to make a decision. Rioting had already spread from London to Birmingham to Liverpool – would Manchester be next?
The messages coming into his command centre in Sedgley Park were mixed: he had information that 600 people were about to gather in Wigan, and intelligence about trouble brewing in Rochdale and Salford. “We had about six pieces of seamless strand information – some social media, some internal intelligence,” the assistant chief constable said. “But nothing gave any kind of clarity.”
Many rioters used BlackBerry Messenger, which they believed to be encrypted, to share information about locations. Police have confirmed they were unable to access these messages, and were left trying to decipher publicly available information circulating on the internet.
Reading the Riots interviews with officers have revealed the extent to which they struggled to sort rumour from fact at critical points during the disturbances, leading to confusion over where to deploy resources.
A bronze commander in Manchester described reacting to reports of disorder on social networks as fighting a “phoney war”.
“There’s loads of reports of youths coming in, and you never actually find them and never get them. You get [the reports] from your radio, probably [based] on intelligence from Twitter. ‘Fifty masked men going down Regent Road’ – and we don’t find them. ‘Gang of youths on their way to Salford Quays’ – don’t find them.”
In addition to social media, police were receiving reports from officers on the ground and 999 calls. Lynne Owens, then assistant commissioner at the Met, said police in the capital “struggled to analyse even in the most basic way the volume and level of information that was coming in. It absolutely overwhelmed us.”
Owens said it took three days of rioting and a flood of social media messages before the Met worked out there “had to be instinctive reactions to what we were seeing and reading”.
“I don’t know whether we had wholly moved with the times,” she said. “We have a fairly traditional view on what intelligence is, and of course lots of the conversations or chit-chat on social media wasn’t intelligence – but it was probably telling us something about mood. And we had no systems in London at that time to pick up on the mood.”
Chris Sims, chief constable of West Midlands police, said his force was actively engaged in trying to dispel information it believed to be untrue. “We spent quite a lot of time standing over someone’s shoulder looking at [social media]. Coventry’s on fire, Walsall’s been demolished, two men dead – we’re tweeting away trying to counter it, but it’s very difficult.”
Chief Superintendent Adrian Roberts, who was silver commander for the Met, said getting a grip on social media was the biggest challenge. “Simply because it involves IT training,” he said. “New technologies, commissioning software.” (The Met now says it has procured the appropriate technology to monitor social media use in the police intelligence arena, while “also continuing to work with the Home Office’s wider national programme developing this area of policing intelligence”.)
During the riots, the gap between police intelligence and what people in riot-affected communities knew about pending unrest was often glaring. Many rank-and-file officers interviewed for the study recalled being told by members of the public, in touch with developments on social media, where and when the next eruption of violence would be.
“I knew that [riots] were going to happen in Manchester by members of the public, not by our own senior command,” said a 47-year-old constable. “It was all over Twitter. We were being told, and telling senior people, at half four on the day it kicked off, some two and a half hours before it actually went mad. It was people coming up to us in the middle of the street and telling us: ‘It’s all over Twitter, they’re going to come into Manchester.'”
Other officers described their frustration at being alerted to forthcoming disorder by family or friends. A 28-year-old constable with Merseyside police was sent a text by his partner during the first day of rioting in Liverpool. She told him there were rumours on social media sites that riots would occur in the city that night.
“I found it a bit annoying that other people knew before we did,” the constable said. “I’d like to think that if that kind of information was out there on the social media, then we should be the first ones on top of it.”