The England Riots: The fuzzy boundary between the real and the virtual worlds of mobilisation

by Emily Rainsford. During the summer of 2011 the UK saw something they had not seen in a long time. The riots in London and other cities shocked the whole country. The consequences for some of the rioters were equally shocking and raise questions about the difference between mobilisation and (political) participation. 

The England riots started in the area of Tottenham in London following a peaceful protest in response to the police handling of the shooting of Marc Duggan. Over the following days the disturbances spread to other parts of London and other cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. (1) Across England thousands of people were arrested and charged in relation to the riots. (2) 

These events took place during a year of protests and uproar across the world. The world had already witnessed the Arab spring, and many commentators saw the parallels. But the similarities were not the political nature of the disturbances. In the Middle East the political message of the demonstrators was clear, whilst in England suggestions of political motivations for the rioters were quickly shot down. Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the riots were not about government cuts, because the target was high street stores, not Parliament- concluding that ‘this was about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code’. (3) 

This was a simple message. But a report by NatCen produced for the Cabinet Office has shown a more complex picture of multiple motivations and drivers for young people to get involved in the riots. (4) Some motivations were perhaps morally questionable such as the opportunity to get free stuff, but some people were motivated by anger at the police and those in power. The report also highlights contextual nudging factors such as lack of attachment to a community and boredom due to a lack of legitimate things to do for young people. But these push factors of a more political nature were neither accepted nor recognised during the heat over the summer.  

No, the most prominent feature of similarity between the England riots and the Arab spring was not the political motivations, but rather the means of mobilisation. Twitter, Facebook and other social media became widely known beyond its users. The England riots were to a large extent coordinated through Blackberry messaging and there were calls for curfew on the service to stop mobilisation. (5) 

Online mobilisation should be taken seriously; it reaches a larger and wider audience instantly and in creative ways, it allows for ‘bottom up’ mobilisation, putting the power in the hands of citizens. Many social movement scholars recognise online social networks as important channels for mobilisation. It is challenging both geographical and time boundaries, which makes mobilisation much faster, as seen in the England riots where the police struggled to keep up with the mobs of people mobilising and moving quickly.

But mobilisation is not the same as political activism. Mobilisation is defined as the process of increasing the readiness to act collectively. (6) As such, the one mobilising, online or offline, is clearly politically active trying to get people act together. But I would say that the individual target of mobilisation, such as a member of the public offline or a social media user online, is not mobilised until they act politically. Offline this is quite clear: they attend an event such as the riots for example. But what counts as acting politically online? Is it to follow the activist on twitter, liking a Facebook status, mobilising others by spreading the message of the initial mobiliser, posting something on your own or someone else’s wall, or does it have to spill over in offline participation to considered fully mobilised? 

Scholars have been sceptical of merely online mobilisation, arguing that it leads to thin ideological identification and slacktivism or clicktivism - clicking a button is all people do. In contrast, a recent working paper by Olcese et al (7) shows that activists do engage in deep political discussions online. But these activists were also active offline- a common finding when looking at who participates online. Online and offline political acts are often closely interlinked, for example the Obama campaign reached new potential voters through online mobilisation, but it was their donations and votes offline that made his campaign powerful and made him win the election. (8)

The scholarly jury is still out on the importance of offline consequences of online activities. We simply do not know enough about the relationship between the online and offline spheres, how to categorise and compare them. The police and the judicial system were of a different view as two teenagers were sentenced to prison for calling for riots on Facebook, riots that never happened. (9)  Here a mere attempt for mobilisation online, without the intended effect of violence offline was considered to be severe enough to be put in prison for. It is important to take online activities seriously, but there must be recognition of the virtual nature of the activities. Not everything that happens online is, or even should be considered, real. 

This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. Click here to read the other contributions on citizenship related issues for DevelopmentPLUS.  

Emily Rainsford is a PhD student at University of Southampton, Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance (, and part of the UK team of the European wide project Caught in the Act: Contextualising Contestation (


  1. See for more details on course of events and geographical spread.
  4. NatCen (2011) The August Riots in England, available at:
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gamson, W.A. (1975) The Strategy of Social Protest
  7. Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance working paper, Available by request. 
  8. Gibson, R., (2008) 'New Media and the Revitalisation of Politics',  Response to Hay, Stoker and Williamson, presented at the Revitalising Politics Conference London, Nov 5-6, 2008.
Photo: ssoosay Digi-Artist/flickr