This is your brain online: What Twitter’s Duggan verdict reaction taught us

By Carl Miller

Social media has done much to bring people together, but it can also act as a window into society when we are at our most divided. No event in recent memory has done more to expose the tears in our social fabric than the August disorders of 2011.

On Thursday August 4th 2011 a north London man, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by a police officer shortly after getting out of a taxi he had been travelling in. A wave of violence and anger spread in the wake of the killing; in north London on the 6th, more widely across London on the 7th and 8th, and to other English cities on the 9th. The most significant urban protest in decades, the 'August disorder' cost five lives and hundreds of millions pounds worth of damage. 

An inquest was established to bring the full facts of the killing to light, and on January 8th 2014 the jury delivered its conclusion as answers to a series of questions. These included:

  • Did Mr Duggan have the gun with him in the taxi immediately before the stop? – Yes
  • When Mr Duggan received the fatal shot did he have the gun in his hand? – No (by a majority of eight to two)
  • Conclusion of the jury as to the death – Lawful killing (by a majority of eight to two).

As these answers were read out, and amidst a furore around the court itself, the floodgates of social media opened. There were 86,000 tweets about Mark Duggan in the immediate aftermath about verdict. Thirty-three thousand were just sharing information about the verdict itself but the majority – 53,000 – were sharing an attitude. This was an event where people wanted to have their say.

My Centre at Demos, the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, has built technology to collect and understand large numbers of public tweets about events. Although by no means an exact science – it's probably, overall, about 70% accurate – I wanted to use it to listen to what was being said.

Indignant, then fearful

The immediate reaction, in the seconds and minutes after the verdict was delivered, was an escalation of indignant disbelief. Around 28k tweets, or 58% of the total, angrily dismissed the verdict for two main reasons. Some were unable to reconcile how the jury's verdicts could both find that Duggan was unarmed when he was shot AND that it was a lawful killing: "this government is so corrupt it is ridiculous. How can the duggan killing be lawful when he was unarmed?" Others seemed to bring longer-lasting grievances to the table – for them the Metropolitan police are predatory and institutionally racist.

"Nothing has really changed since Stephen Lawrence. They are still racist to the core".

Very soon after, and understandably, there was a short-lived explosion in concern – 3,500 tweets in all – that there was going to be trouble on the street of London that night. Perhaps seeing the anger on Twitter, "I get a very bad feeling about all of this" said one, "as darkness descends over Tottenham this evening, the police sirens have already started". Some others, very probably joking, made light of it.

"I'm not sure how strongly I feel about the whole Duggan thing, but I would like some new trainers, and maybe an iPod."

Some time later, a counter-reaction began to rise. People started taking to Twitter to defend the jury's verdict or express solidarity with the police. These 8,300 tweets were broadly split into those who pointed out that whilst he didn't have a gun when he was shot, he did shortly before, and the slightly more brutal view that 'he had it coming'.

"hahah some of the comments about our police are ridiculous. They don't go round shooting people for fun, Mark Duggan was a scumbag".

Against this backdrop of passionate expression and debate, some other people used Twitter to watch the scenes happening in and around the court immediately after the verdict.

Twitter's window on society

When you put all these different kinds of reaction together, you can see that as Twitter unfolds in these different ways, a story emerges about society's reaction to this important case. Below is a graph showing the volume (going up) of each type of Tweet over time (going across). You can see how first Tweets critical of the verdict ('nojustice', the darker orange) rise first and highest. Almost immediately after are tweets concerned we are about to see more trouble on our streets ('gonnariot', the lighter orange). Only later do Tweets defending the verdict (the 'justice' category, the darker blue line) start appearing. 

To be clear: this method isn't like a poll. It isn't representative of the whole of society, and we can't be sure that most people in society generally thought the verdict was unjust. Twitter lends itself to short, knee-jerk reactions – nuance is hard to build into 140 characters – and many people expressing views about the Duggan verdict would choose to do so another way in another forum.

But I do think it exposes or suggests two important tears in fabric of society in general about policing and crime in the UK today.

The first is between some people and the police. For some, the Metropolitan police haven't moved a step forwards since Stephen Lawrence. For these people the Met remains, at heart, racist and Duggan is just another black victim. Despite efforts by the police, there remains a stubborn and significant view that the police are not there for all communities in the UK today. Dealing with this is obviously vital if policing through consent – a vital cornerstone of the British approach – can be secured.

The second is between different parts of society itself. These tweets suggest that for many the police are of course racist, and for many others Duggan of course a murderous thug. More fundamentally, we can see two opposing worldviews each with a clear sense of the villain in this episode: either an unfeeling, brutal officialdom or a 'feral' violent youth.

In many ways the August disorder proved to be a turning point for the state and government. It changed the police's approach to public order and social media, and more broadly sharpened the arguments for greater inclusion and cohesion in Britain's urban centres.

Here, however, Twitter has offered us a window into society's views about criminal justice and policing. However imperfect this window is, I think it also stands as a warning: we seem to remain, in our views about policing and crime, as starkly divided as we were during the riots themselves.

Carl Miller is an associate of Demos working on social media, the internet and security.

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