Every Little Helps? Audience reactions to sousveillance footage of the ‘anti-tesco’ riot in Stokes Crofton 7 January 2014
By Paul Reilly
Eyewitness perspectives on civil unrest can now be shared by recording footage on a mobile phone and sharing it on sites such as YouTube. This could potentially redefine journalism, allowing previously marginalised voices to be heard in a public sphere that is co-created by both citizens and professional journalists. Social media is facilitating sousveillance, a form of inverse surveillance which empowers citizens through their use of technology to ‘access and collect data about their surveillance’. Sometimes witnesses deliberately record the actions of authority figures, such as police officers, and have a clear political agenda for sharing this material. Yet, the use of mobile phones by members of the public to record personal experiences may, in many cases, be transformed into a form of inverse surveillance through its dissemination on YouTube, thus raising questions about the actions of the police officers captured on camera.
So, how does the online audience react to these acts of sousveillance shared on social media? This was a key research question in my study of comments left in response to videos uploaded to YouTube by those who had witnessed the so-called ‘Battle of Stokes Croft’ in April 2011. A police raid on the Telepathic Heights squat on Cheltenham Road, a main thoroughfare in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, was said to have been the catalyst for the clashes between the police and rioters. The Assistant Chief Constable of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, Rod Hansen, defended this raid as ‘positive action’ by the police to protect the public from the petrol bombs that were allegedly being made inside the squat for use during a planned attack on the controversial Tesco store. Local and national media coverage suggested that the ‘Battle of Stokes Croft’ had been ‘prompted by protests against the opening of a Tesco Store’ rather than the police operation to evict the squatters. Local residents, who referred to the police tactics as ‘unfathomable’, refuted these claims and questioned Hansen’s assertion that petrol bombs were being made inside the squat. The news media were criticised not only for the inaccurate report that the Tesco store had been firebombed by protesters but also for ‘copying and pasting’ the police news release into their coverage.
Although there was little evidence to suggest that the violence had been organised on sites such as Facebook, real-time information from eyewitnesses could be accessed under the #stokescroft hashtag on Twitter. Many of these tweets suggested that the violence had started after a ‘police charge’ to disperse local residents who had gathered on the streets in protest against the arrest of the four alleged ‘petrol bombers’ in the squat. Clearly, it is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty whether the information conveyed in these tweets was accurate, as demonstrated by a recent study showing how Twitter was used to spread rumours during the English riots in August 2011. However, several eyewitnesses corroborated these allegations in first-hand accounts of the riot that were published on the Bristol Indymedia site a few days later.
My study explored the extent to which YouTube footage of the riot, uploaded by eyewitnesses, elicited sympathy amongst commentators for these claims that the police operation was heavy-handed, using the four most commented upon videos. If the intention of sharing footage on YouTube was to hold the police to account for their ‘heavy-handed’ operation, then there was little evidence to suggest that the strategy had been successful. Some commentators did believe that the police tactics were ‘unfathomable’, particularly in relation to the timing of the raid on Telepathic Heights. Their comments appeared to corroborate the allegations of police brutality made by eyewitnesses on sites such as Bristol Indymedia. However, the majority of the comments did not describe this footage as a form of hierarchical sousveillance and the police were criticised for not adopting more aggressive crowd control methods to disperse the rioters. These commentators expressed little sympathy for the residents who claimed the operation was heavy-handed. The media framing of the disturbances, which suggested that the violence was a manifestation of the anti-Tesco campaign, was both challenged and supported by different sections of the online audience. Local residents argued that the provocative and heavy-handed actions of the police had sparked the riot, while commentators who were unfamiliar with the area tended to believe that the violence was an expression of local anger against the controversial Tesco store. The anti-Tesco campaign polarised opinion, particularly amongst those commentators that claimed to be from Bristol. Some Bristolians attempted to provide some context for those commentators who could not understand why local residents so vehemently opposed the Tesco store. There were other commentators that questioned the legitimacy of the campaign in light of claims that some local residents were actually in favour of the Tesco development. The study found that many of these commentators made no distinction between the anti-Tesco protesters and the rioters. The anti-social behaviour of the crowd shown in this footage had generated sympathy amongst sections of the online audience for the riot police officers that had been the focus of this footage.
The supporters and opponents of the anti-Tesco campaign traded insults alongside the competing narratives that emerged in the comments section below each video. There was no consensus amongst commentators in relation to the broader issues of how the police should respond to civil disturbances and the legitimacy of local campaigns to protect small businesses from large corporations such as Tesco. Nor did the sousveillance footage prompt many of these commentators to engage with the micro-level factors that contributed to the Stokes Croft riot, ranging from the timing of the police raid on Telepathic Heights to the decision by Bristol City Council to grant planning permission for the Tesco store against the wishes of many local residents.
My study suggests that eyewitnesses may not be able to predict how commentators respond to footage presumably shared for the purposes of hierarchical sousveillance. The use of social media to share first-hand perspectives on the policing of civil disturbances may raise more questions about the behaviour of members of the public rather than that of authority figures. It may also lead to angry back-and-forth exchanges between commentators that involve the use of racist and offensive language and show little or no engagement with the events captured on camera. YouTube may provide a public space in which alternative perspectives may be both seen and heard, but there is little rational debate about the meaning of events, with the views of many commentators still strongly influenced by the news media.
Paul Reilly is Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. He tweets @PaulJReilly.
Image: CC BY Alistair Lindup