by Antonio A. Casilli and Paola Tubaro
During the last week several voices of the international blogosphere have been discussing our study on the impact of social media censorship during the August 2011 UK Riots. As you know if you have been reading our blogs, our work was based on computational methods and aimed at showing possible scenarios of civil violence. We were adamant about the fact that our intention is to provide policy-making tools and a theoretical framework, while data collection about the riots and their possible social determinants is pending.
The hunger for data produces spurious correlations
A few of our readers have been particularly concerned with the fact that, for the time being, evidence is lacking. A particularly virulent one dismissed, in the comments section of a US blog reviewing our research, our results as unsubstantiated “opinions cloaked in technology”. In the current climate of ideological polarization, such attacks are to be considered – albeit epistemologically enticing – politically motivated. As is some of the “swift evidence” the Internet is regurgitating these days.
Exhibit A: the HumStats Blog, sprung from nothing on August 15th 2011, with only one post suggestively titled ‘2011 England Riots: Statistics of Ethnicity’: a lengthy statistical tirade highlighting a “strong correlation” between the occurrence of riots and black population (unemployed black population, to be precise) while discarding other socio-economic status indicators as not significant. (The blogger’s profile ‘HumStats’ is frugal to say the least. All we know is that this person is somehow statistics-savvy, but we have no indication as to the blogger’s gender or ethnic background).
Now, this kind of exercises in descriptive statistics is simple to grasp for everyone. Just having a look at summaries such as this one, taken from the blog post in question, an inexperienced reader might be drawn to think that the correlation is there, and – as in many a mind correlation implies causation – bang!… the Black and Afro-Caribbean population of England is automatically to blame for the recent wave of civil violence. What’s more, class conflict is nothing and, apparently, matters of social justice count for peanuts.
Just to pound the point home, the Nameless Blogger exploits another source of data: Police CCTV pictures of suspects in the 3 largest riot locations (London, Birmingham and Wolverhampton). And, again, the pictures are emblematic of the kind of agenda our blogger is pushing. Organized in photo albums, they are saturated with red warnings, representing ethnically black rioters.
Of course correlation does not imply causation and data of this kind, if anything, might be held indicative of police biases. More importantly, these pictures are less valuable for the data they illustrate than for the little red line they exhibit, reading “This is not a call for racial discrimination, but a note on inaccurate media coverage”.
‘Class hatred or racial discrimination: pick your poison’
What is our blogger talking about? Those of you who have not been following the UK media coverage of the August 2011 riots have maybe missed the controversy raised by historian David Starkey, openly blaming the riots on “black gang culture”. In a recent BBC televised debate Starkey’s intellectual opponent, so to speak, was Owen Jones who has recently published Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.
Although Jones’s book is a vindication of popular culture against the caricature of the intellectually impoverished working class propagated in recent years, for a fortuitous media short-circuit, its author comes out as putting the blame for the riots of the underprivileged white yobs instead than on black lower-classes.
Supposedly, this is the kind of “inaccurate media coverage” our Nameless Blogger is rebelling against when s/he says:
“The media seem to focus exclusively on the social class of the August rioters, while claiming the absence of a large ethnocultural undercurrent. There is an excessive concentration on ‘chavs’ or ‘yobs’, who are understood to be white. However, chavs form but a minority of rioters and looters, while the disproportionate majority is Black African and Afro-Caribbean.”
The kind of statistical exercises s/he indulges in are just about as good as the explanation provided for the observed correlations they point at. And in this case the explanation is poorly argumented and with clear racist undertones:
“Both theoretical and empirical evidence shows that it is improper to disconnect the August 2011 riots from race and ethnic culture. It is, likewise, inappropriate to associate it with the uneducated, low-skilled white lower class (‘chavs’). It was severely underrepresented in the riots, and did not produce riots in numerous poor non-black areas.”
Not the shadow of a correlation test to check if these results are robust. And yet, the Nameless Blogger goes on: when compared with other variables, ethnicity has the best predicting power. To hell with socio-economic factors: they are subject to “dispute”. That the black unemployed are overly violent, now – *that* is a fact.
“None of the socioeconomic factors have the same predicting power as black ethnicity in this case. In fact, they are meaningless to the riots when not a correlate of black population. Why the black community played such a prominent role in the riots may be disputed. But it is clear that role of the black community was greater than that of any other group, and it should be accordingly regarded in the media.”
On a final note…
These few lines were not intended to undermine coming analyses exploring the role that race, segregation, and racial discrimination might have had in affecting the recent political events in the UK. In fact, several studies have outlined the way culture and ethnicity play out in shaping political conflict in different countries (see e.g. D. Waddington, F. Jobard & M. King (eds.) Rioting in the UK and France: A Comparative Analysis, Devon: Willan Publishing, 2009).
Consider our words a cautionary tale about the century-old struggle between theory and experience. If it’s true – as the remark mentioned at the beginning has it – that our theoretical modelling of the UK riots is just an “opinion cloaked in technology”, evidence like the one offered by our Nameless Statistician can be regarded as nothing but an opinion crutched by data.
Let’s agree that any scientific production is a form of situated knowledge, and that as such it cannot prescind from the opinions and cultural orientations of the scientists involved. Let’s keep this in mind while choosing the facts to substantiate our political decisions in times of political instability…