Why people can’t help themselves

Andrew Potter on how many take a great pleasure in anti-social behaviour, like rioting

Why people can't help themselves

Jess Hurd/Report Digital/ Redux

Why people can't help themselves
Jess Hurd/Report Digital/ Redux

Anyone who has ever taken part in a riot, or even just hovered on the periphery of one, knows how exhilarating it can be. Windows smashed, cars torched, stores looted—it’s like being in the middle of a video game. Yet there is a tendency to try to psychoanalyze society and interpret the mob’s behaviour as a symptom of some great underlying malaise: hockey’s culture of macho violence in the case of June’s riot in Vancouver, racism or poverty or the welfare state in the case of the looting that hopscotched across England last week.

People are over-thinking things way too much. Any proper discussion of a riot and why it happens has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun. At any given moment, there are far more people willing to riot and loot than we like to admit, and the only reason there isn’t more of it is that if you do it by yourself or in a small group, you’ll almost certainly get caught. But if you can get enough people to riot, you can all get away with it, which is why when it comes to getting one started, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem. The trick is getting a critical mass of people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time.

Certain events, like game seven of the Stanley Cup final, have become reliable opportunities to riot—a bunch of people show up precisely because they know that a lot of other people will also be showing up to riot. Another reliable opportunity is any sort of anti-authority protest, such as a meeting of the G20 or—what sparked the events in Tottenham—a demonstration against police violence. No matter how peaceful the initial gathering is meant to be, it is easily overwhelmed by those who are there just to smash stuff.

All that has happened in the past year or so is that delinquents have discovered the flash mob, using social networking tools like Twitter and BlackBerry messenger to organize riots with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Hipsters have been organizing flash mobs for years now, flooding into subways and financial districts to have impromptu dance parties or pillow fights. In China, consumers have been using social networking to organize group shopping expeditions, where they descend upon a retailer and use the pressure of 50 or 60 people to extract deep discounts from the shop owners. It is not a big step from that to arranging for a few hundred people to show up to loot the electronics shop or the shoe store, or having a few thousand people get together to torch a department store.

This is a genuine challenge to law enforcement. Organized crime has always been structured along the lines of the family or the state, because for much of human existence, the family and the state have been the most effective mechanisms for solving coordination problems amongst self-interested individuals. The police have traditionally responded by infiltrating the crime families and other trust networks using undercover agents, wiretaps, and other staples of police procedurals.

Social media have the obvious capacity to increase the amount of rioting—that’s why the Tottenham riot spread so quickly across England, and why the protests of the Arab Spring popped up in so many places at once. On the other hand, technology can also work against the rioters, by reducing the impunity that comes with the anonymity of crowds. The most important thing the Toronto police did with the G20 riots was not all the head-cracking and the random detentions, but crowdsourcing the identities of people who were photographed committing crimes. The Vancouver police have been busy gathering videos and images of the rioters, and Scotland Yard is now doing likewise. They won’t catch everyone, but they might identify enough people that it will serve as a significant deterrent to future riots. But to really put an end to flash-mob rioting, police are going to have to do the social networking equivalent of going undercover. They will have to infiltrate the groups of wannabe rioters, find out their codes and coordination mechanisms, and otherwise turn the technology against them.

In the meantime, we need to stop assuming that these occasional flare-ups of mass social unrest are signs of profound social dysfunction. You certainly can’t discount the role of unemployment, since being unemployed sharply reduces the risks associated with rioting. If I get caught smashing a shop, I’m probably going to lose my job and my reputation. If a chav on the dole in Tottenham gets caught, what does he have to lose? If anything, a spell in prison will only increase his status.

Yet if you don’t believe that almost anyone can take genuine pleasure in the anti-social behaviour that anonymity enables, then you haven’t been reading the comment boards on the Internet, or you’ve never scanned the graffiti in the typical public bathroom stall. Those horrible people writing those nasty things aren’t drooling troglodytes sitting in their parents’ basements; they are your husbands and wives, your colleagues, your doctor and your lawyer and everyone else you know.

Do you want to know what sort of person joins in a riot and trashes their city and loots their neighbour’s shop? Just look around you. Or better, look in the mirror. Rioting is fun, and we’d all do it if we could.