Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.


Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.


The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9” earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

11 responses to “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

  1. Patrick —

    Great post. As MSM fades in reach and relevance, I’m left wondering how the voices of average citizens can possibly fill the void. In my opinion, the MSM’s ability to deliver meaningful, thorough, well-packaged information remains unparalleled … and citizen journalists, as you have pointed out, are increasingly (and effectively) activists, and vice versa. As many in the blogosphere — or on Twitter, etc — gleefully observe the declining prestige and power of the MSM, citizen-generated content sources aren’t mature enough to step up. And when lives are on the line (not to mention countless dollars of damage to local businesses etc), as in Greece, it is very hard to distinguish between meaningful information sharing and an angry mob — literally, in this case.

    Global Voices is a start for sifting through the blogosphere, but I’d be curious to know what you think the future holds for rapid electronic communications (twitter, sms) and their role in citizen-generated information distribution. Will a day soon come when we write the medium off as too biased? Or the opposite, will we elevate it to MSM’s “4th estate” status?


    • Hi Paul, thanks for your comment and excellent questions.

      I think we need to come up with a better taxonomy for alternative media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic. First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. Perhaps the term “civilian journalism” is more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters. The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t want to use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate. Perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on the term “snapshot” which is what these students were providing.

      I’d like to think learning will take place. What happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. Eventually, we may get a large-scale disaster as a result of “snap mob” behavior. This may then drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value. I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of professional citizen journalism and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at certain standards akin to that of the MSM today. I think MSM will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of “snap mob” behavior.

  2. Pingback: Snap Mobs of the World Unite - A Better Taxonomy? « iRevolution

  3. Just to note that the coroner’s report was delayed because he waited for the victim’s family to send a hired coroner in order to verify the validity of the report. The same happend with the ballistic report. People would not believe these reports in any other way.

  4. no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent
    The facts are a little bit different than what you say. There is a video, there are eyewitnesses. I can’t list all the facts here but you should take account of all the facts when expressing an opinion. I mean even if the bullet was ricocheted, we’re talking about an area with less than 5 meter wide roads, big apartment units in both sides. They have strict orders not too shoot in this areas because, if you shoot, it ricochets. That equals blind shooting. He could have killed a kid playing in a balcony right on top of him for example. Also the claim that he was in danger and there was an angry mob are falling apart by the eyewitnesses and the video.
    You should also consider this not as a unique event only, but through the context of many acts of police brutality and incompetence throught the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report…

    • Many thanks for your comments. I completely, completely agree with you that this event should not be seen as a unique event only, but through the context of many acts of police brutality, corruption of the right-wing government, etc. Thanks also for your comments on the actual physical space that the shooting took place in. Where can one see the video of the incident?

      “The facts are a little bit different than what you say.”

      Please note that these are not my “facts”; as you’ll note from my blog post, I am quoting Andrew Lam directly.

      You should take account of all the facts when expressing an opinion.

      I agree.

  5. Hi, Patrick —

    I was very puzzled by Andrew Lam’s post. I was in Greece at the very conference he was talking about and believe that he is very wrong in his assertions.

    And yes, I did go out at night, as did various others, interviewing peaceful demonstrators, rock-throwing youngsters, shop keepers, and police and getting doused in tear gas. Why did Andrew stay stuck in the hotel? It was just a short walk from where the city was burning.

    There was continuous coverage on all Greek television stations, radio, and in the papers, the BBC and CNN had coverage, there were numerous people taking photos, twittering in English, Greek, and other languages. There was a tag – #griots, and you can see lots of Quik video — in addition to the all-night news coverage on every channel, roundtable discussions, and commentary from activists, politicians, and researchers in Greece.

    The night I was there — the second night of the riots, there were in some streets more journalists than demonstrators, from Reuters, CNN, and the BBC, to name just a few, and of course numerous Greek outlets and stations.

    I am not sure what Andrew means when he says: “What Athens confirmed for me, at least, is that professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, “Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.”

    He clearly did not bother to go down the street so his impressions, from inside the hotel room, are just simply false. (Though he should have turned on the TV while stuck in his room to see the night-long MSM coverage – with plenty of reporters in the streets.)

    What I saw in the streets was a great mix of journalists, people like me watching, blogging, twittering, and taking photos, and other people watching in disbelief what was happening there. There was, very quickly, a discussion about why this was happening — a dialogue about the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government, and how this could boil over, as well as the conduct of the police, and the orders to the police to refrain from rounding up some of the more violent youth roaming the streets, burning and looting.

    This is not to say that Lam’s main point is not a valid one: “It is a dangerous world, indeed, when citizen reporters are completely trusted, both by the media institutions that incorporate them and by the audience who consume that information. The role of the mature news organization, one should think, is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

    Context, background, and thoughtful discussion — as well as distinguishing fact from rumor and innuendo from research — are important by all who are swept up in an event. But Andrew Lam gets it wrong if he thinks that Athens, Greece was that example.

    He would have seen that had he bothered to go outside.


  6. Pingback: Greece Riots: Smart Mob, Snap Mob, or Networked Anarchy | Gauravonomics Blog

  7. I realise it may be a little late now, but as someone who was involved as part of the alternative media giving a voice to demonstrators, I can’t help but notice some things don’t add up.

    As has been pointed out previously, the post by Andrew Lam is misleading to say the least. I am not from Greece, but I have a Cypriot heritage and I knew people involved in the demonstrations and what was coming out of eye witness statements compared to what was being reported on MSM networks, worldwide, differed greatly. If it weren’t for a network of blogs, the operation of the Indymedia, Twitter, SMS Texts and other similar mediums, those demonstrations would have had no voice.

    What I noticed most is how quick MSM organisations and Government were to characterise the demonstrators in a certain light. Media bias was very much in favour of the police for the entirety of the affair. One TV news station reportedly broadcast a doctored version of the youtube video which showed the shooting with added sounds of bottles shattering and car alarms going off. That, simply, didn’t happen.

    MSM networks, at the time of the shooting, failed to interview witnesses and bystanders who said, flat out, the officer shot the 15 year old and only did so later. If it weren’t for youtube videos that allowed this information to get out many within Greece and the outside world would have believed the official line of “a gang of hooded thugs attacked two police officers on patrol with molotovs.” Sure, social stability would have been maintained, but I’d rather an informed populace, personally.

    Media bias was a major motivator for those engaged in the alternate media, and when it shifted in favour of demonstrators, it was short lived. Even then there was no mention made of Xrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn) and the attacks they carried out on immigrants or demonstrators, often with the police watching. If it weren’t for alternative media networks, this would never have been known. Likewise, the context in which provocations by police, raids, attacks and the tacit support given to far-right groups such as the Golden Dawn were rarely explained or shown, despite the existence of photographs as clear evidence.

    I freely admit my bias as an activist and admit I have friendships with some involved in the demonstrations or witness to the demonstrations. However, I think it’s also necessary to point out the bias of many like Andrew Lam who, upon reading their work on the event retrospectively, seemed to have had little grasp of the situation.

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