Dangerous Crowds? Riots, Anonymity and Deindividuation.

The recent riots in the UK have created a substantial public debate. TCC‘s offices in Croydon were very close to some of the worst examples of arson and looting, so we could see at first hand in the following days the terrible impact of those events as people lost their homes and livelihoods. At the same time the aftermath of the riots also brought out the very best in many people with riot clean-up websites coordinating voluntary activity within hours of the violence and crime occurring.

For many the focus has been on the need to tackle crime and bring people to justice quickly: “we need to punish more and understand less”. For some the issue is one of  addressing longer-term issues: “this is a complex issue and there are no simple answers”. These two outlooks are often counterposed to each other when they are both reactions to recent events stemming from wider values that individuals may hold.

How then do we move forward?

Firstly anger and fear amongst the public needs to be fully addressed and communicated to in order to then have any rational debate as to what we do to prevent these scenes happening again. This is not just about addressing emotions, but also about reciprocation – ‘something for something’ – as many amongst the public have the expectation that the state will properly guarantee the safety and security of them and their families, before they might feel ready to give any thought to wider longer-term solutions.

Initially the media coverage focused on the actions of what some termed ‘feral youth‘. However as the justice system has processed offenders it may well have surprised people as to the significant number of previously law-abiding citizens in well-paid jobs caught up in the riots. How do they fit into that initial narrative as to the cause of the riots?

Whilst much of the initial violence may have been initiated by young people, with Blackberry messaging encouraging copycat responses, a lot of the subsequent looting seemed to feature a much wider range of people. Will attitudes on some aspects of the riots change as some people come to the realisation that it could have been their son or daughter or partner, completely out of character, who might have been arrested, perhaps for opportunistic looting? The most recent polling on evictions of social housing tenants does seem to show quite a rapid shift over the last week from initial reactions, perhaps in response to what may be a more mixed narrative? A Conservative MP demanding removal of benefits from rioters also seemed to make a distinction along these lines:

I am sad to see so many people go to prison, especially as there seems to have been two broad categories of rioters – weak minded, opportunistic, impressionable people who perhaps got carried away, and more serious, more sinister rioters who took a more professional and calculated approach and who may have played a part in the planning and orchestration of the rioting. Both categories should face prison sentences but if the courts are able to determine that rioters fall into the latter category, they should face especially long sentences, as should particularly violent rioters and arsonists (longer still).

Perhaps the word ‘mindless’ in the phrase ‘mindless violence’ should be looked at in more detail. One of the reasons for this wider mix of people than might be expected, is that crowds can create their own social norms where deindividuation occurs. People can find a form of anonymity in the crowd and lose their inhibitions and do things that their normal social networks would strongly disapprove of. Anyone who has been in a large crowd at a music or sporting event or at a political demonstration may well recall things happening that they might not countenance in everyday life as the crowd creates its own social norm and people copy the activities of people around them. Mark Earls, the author of the book Herd has also recently written about the ‘lure of the crowd‘. Pat Dade of Cultural Dynamics has written about the values of those most likely to be part of a rioting crowd. Thus by far the most effective Police tactic of the night was telling people to stay away as bigger crowds could have been even more unpredictable.

Someone reading this blog posting might well respond to that point, saying, “well, you would never catch me acting out of character in an anonymous crowd situation”. It is possible that some people, with very rooted social networks and values may find it easier to resist in those situations, but let me give you a form of deindividuation that is much closer to home to people writing and commenting online; in this case examples of the often appalling deindividuated behaviour of people who hide behind anonymity within the vast internet ‘crowd’ online. I suspect it would therefore be quite easy at present to find examples of deindividuated anonymous people online commenting in an extreme way about the behaviour of recent extreme deindividuated behaviour offline! Indeed, perhaps one might in future seek to reframe the term Internet ‘Trolls’ as ‘online rioters’ to better demonstrate some of the dangers of uncontrolled deindividuation online?

Some people have argued that these riots sustained themselves for a number of days through the desire for material goods. Early blog postings described events as a ‘Consumerist Riot‘. If this is the case people then need to think what actually drives this? One key aspect of consumerism is the human need to achieve self-esteem, the esteem of others and status amongst ones peers, by showing off or talking about their acquisitions. This can be as natural for upstanding law-abiding citizen’s telling friends of their purchase of an important material good as it is for young people showing off trainers or a mobile phone whether lawfully or unlawfully acquired. Consumerism can be a way for some to satisfy that need, at least in the short-term.

Of course for young people achieving self-esteem is also a particularly important aspect to growing up and thriving as an adult. Most young people may well be surrounded by positive and pro-social family and peer networks that help them transition well towards self-esteem in adulthood, but we also know that some may be surrounded by the opposite. Prior to recent events TCC had just completed research on Status Dogs, which can be seen by some as quite an intimidating aspect of current youth culture. From the research we conducted, we had recently picked up on the use of Blackberry mobile devices as a way to achieve private communication. The research also confirmed the use of the term ‘Status’ was very appropriate as Status Dogs contributed to the self-esteem, esteem from others and status for a segment of young people. If these are important needs to achieve at a certain point in life and satisfaction of them drives people’s motivation, self-efficacy and values, then communities and wider society may need to look at behavioural interventions that help people achieve these needs in different ways.

Clearly the public does not want to see these terrible events happening again and Central Government, Local Councils and the Police will need to address the issue in a range of ways. Police tactics, the criminal justice system, social media, tackling gang culture and early intervention in families facing multiple challenges will all feature in a wide range of future preventative approaches. Again the role of crowds and social networks are important here. The Strathclyde Police Glasgow Gangs project, based on the U.S. Boston ‘Operation Ceasefire’ programmes, addresses gangs at a group, social network or ‘crowd’ level as much as at individual level and relies heavily on insight and intelligence on how gangs develop gathered by the Police, but also by the wider community.

Next May we are likely to see the first elected Police Commissioners and the aftermath of the riots is likely to remain a national issue for the forseeable future. The public debate on this may be often characterised between the two outlooks that I described at the beginning of this post. Those who are likely to most effectively address the issues at local and national level are those who are able to respond to both outlooks.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

2 Responses to “Dangerous Crowds? Riots, Anonymity and Deindividuation.”

  1. ‘What makes people tick’? New book explains effective use of values in public policy « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] mobility. They are also helpful in understanding contemporary events such as the recent riots as this blog posting […]

  2. Police Report on Riots: “Community links in the affected areas were often ‘out of date’” « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] Post-behaviour rationalisation tends to aim to reduce the cognitive dissonance that anyone might feel after they have taken part in an act which faced overwhelming public disapproval. Thus as well as describing their individual actions much of the testimony also refers to how they perceived the actions of their peers, whether it was obtaining what they described as ‘free stuff’ through to seeing others ‘getting away with it’ which then drove them on to be part of a localised social norm. We covered the details of some of the key motivational drivers for this in a previous posting: Dangerous Crowds? Riots, Anonymity and Deindividuation. […]

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