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.