Saturday, 29 January 2011

some quick thoughts on today's demo in London (29/1/2011)

The protest march against tuition fees & spending cuts held today (Sat 29th Jan) in London passed off peacefully without any major incidents that I am aware of. I was interviewed earlier in the week in Parliament square by an independent media company, and one of the questions I was asked was whether I thought there would be disorder on today's demo. My answer at the time (which I worried may have come accross as me sitting on the fence) was that it depended entirely on how the event was policed. I feel that the lack of collective disorder today has supported that view, because the Police tactics today were noticeably different from those employed at the previous 3 anti-fees demos held last November-December.

There was much less of a visible Police presence accompanying the march, and while there clearly were still a lot of officers deployed, they stayed much more in the background, protecting strategic targets, and not deployed in protective riot gear. Indeed, the only protective gear I saw all day, was where some officers who were deployed in front of Parliament had riot helmets attached to their belts but were not wearing them. There were a few places where they set up defensive lines (such as in front of Millbank & the Egyptian embassy), but I saw no attempts by protestors to force their way past. Generally speaking I feel that the demo was a very well-natured one, and this was facilitated by what appeared to be a more sensible approach to managing the crowd by the Police.

I think all this shows that collective disorder when groups of people come together to protest is not inevitable, and crowd management strategies that start off from the premise that there is a likelihood of disorder, risk becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. Furthermore, the idea that if disorder occurs, it is because a protest has been 'hijacked' by naughty extremists, is a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence. On today's demo there was a diverse range of protestors including those that some in the media like to label as 'extremists', but their presence did not incite others into disorder, and more importantly why should it? This argument only seems to make sense if one accepts the notion that crowd members are inherently gullible and uncritical of what goes on around them, and if others start behaving in more militant ways, then they will do so as well. However, this is again a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence and only serves to perpetuate the idelogical and reactionary views of crowds that are held by many. Hopefully, greater examination of events like today and comparisons with situations where there has been collective disorder will help counter such views    

Monday, 24 January 2011

Moscow airport bombing Jan 24th 2011

As I am typing this, news is still coming in about the Moscow airport bombing which was clearly a horrific experience for those unfortunate enough to have been caught up in it. However, the following extract below illustrates what I feel to be another example of how coverage of these tragedies all too often slips into uncritical usage of outdated terms such as 'panic', even when faced with conflicting information. Here the BBC coverage uses the term with all its selfish assumptions, but in the very same same sentence then describes how a British survivor helps others around him. I would argue that this is not the actions of a panicked individual and supports our research into emergencies that found co-operative altruistic (rather than selfish)  behaviour to be the norm in such situations.

'He described scenes of panic and how he gave a drink of water to a bloodied Russian man whose face was blackened with soot'

Some thoughts on the Hungarian night-club tragedy Jan 2011

As news of a tragedy in a Hungarian night-club filter through, media reports seem to use uncritically descriptions of words such as 'panic', and 'stampede'. I think that such words should not be used to describe behaviour in emergencies, as they are inadequate to describe what actually happens in such situations. In the research that I and countless others have done in this field, panic is usually noticeable by its absence- eg that the classic notions of 'panic' (mass hysteria, breakdown of social norms, selfish behaviour- pushing trampling etc) are rarely (if ever) found, and when people are physically able to co-operate, they do so. If physical pressure is so great that people cannot help each other, then vocal manifestations of 'panic' may occur (screaming, crying etc), but this does not mean that general 'mass panic' occurs. Indeed, when people are trampled, it is usually because someone falls over in a crush, there is a domino effect, and others are physically unable to help them up, and end up falling on them as well.  
Moreover, using definitions such as 'stampede' also has deeply ideological and animalistic premises that merely reflect a broader mistrust of the crowd in society and social discourse, and doesn't add to a greater understanding of behaviour in emergencies. Indeed, I would argue that the often pervasive assumption that information about threats should be withheld from crowds during emergencies (for fear of creating 'mass panic') is not evidence-based, and may increase the danger to those affected, as it may mean that people delay their own evacuation from safety while they wait for more information about the situation. 

A Busman's holiday in Tunisia!

I recently went on holiday to Tunisia, where I found myself caught up in a revolution, which was quite fortuitous for me, considering my research interests involve the study of crowd behaviour. Below follows an e-mail I sent to the BBC about my experiences of being there and being interviewed by the media while I was out there

further to the conversation we had while I was in the Tunisian resort of Sousse last friday, I would like to add some thoughts about how I think the recent situation in Tunisia was covered by the British media, and how the opportunity to present a potentially new and interesting angle to the story was sadly missed. I felt that the coverage in general tended to be over-sensationalised and bordered on being alarmist at times, which not only presented a partial picture of the situation, but could also have contributed to unnecessarily raising anxiety levels of both those in Tunisia, and their loved ones back home who saw the coverage.

While I found the worst culprits were as usual amongst the tabloid press, there were times when I felt that even the BBC could have been a little more even-handed in its coverage of the situation. For instance, one of the interviews I did was for Radio 5 Live, where I was interviewed right after a holidaymaker in Hammammet who had barricaded himself into his hotel room with his wife and 3 young children. My attempts to portray the picture as a little more nuanced, and that I didn't think tourists would be targeted in the disorder didn't seem to be given that much attention by the journalist I spoke to, and the interview seemed to be cut short.

Therefore, I worry that the inference of pervasive fear & distress amongst holiday-makers in Tunisia was considered a better story than that it was actually quite safe for the vast majority of holiday-makers, as it didn't seem to be in anyone's interests for tourists to be harmed. While it was clearly a distressing experience for the specific family concerned, I met them on the plane out the next day, and we were all laughing and joking about our experiences. They certainly did not strike me as deeply traumatized by their experiences, but I worry that is not how the situation will be remembered, as it is less newsworthy than the mental image of tourists being barricaded in one's hotel while the resort 'burns'.

Moreover, while there was probably also a lot of fear amongst holiday makers about what was happening, and a desire to get home, I would argue that much of the distress would have been based more on their worries of what might happen, rather than what actually did happen. The footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, clearly shows they were selective in the targets they attacked (such as properties belonging to the family of the President, Ben Ali). Indeed, when my partner and I were caught up in a riot, we found that not only were crowd members not threatening towards us, many were coming up to us, telling us that we were safe, and why they were targeting certain buildings & not others, their view of the president etc. The only time we felt concerned for our safety was when the Police arrived, and there was a general fear that they would open fire on the crowd, as they had already done elsewhere. The only footage I have seen where foreigners were deliberately targeted, was when a car-load of Swedes on a hunting trip were stopped and attacked when the crowd found they had guns on them, believing they were foreign mercenaries. Clearly that was a wrong judgment on the part of the crowd, but given the fluid nature of the situation in Tunis at the time, it is perhaps not that surprising that they came to this conclusion when they found the guns.

I worry therefore, that there is a danger that the media has pursued an angle on this story (e.g. terrified British holidaymakers caught up in the middle of a revolution etc) that buys too much into outdated views- not only of how crowds behave, but also how people are far more resilient in the face of adversity than they are often given credit for. This reflects a deeply pathological view of crowds that is rather pervasive in social discourse, but not supported by the evidence that a wide range of academic studies into crowds over the last 50 years have found.

Please contact me if you require further information on this topic. I attach fyi a booklet I produced with a colleague on a project we did into mass emergency behaviour, and a link follows below to academic papers we have published on this topic.

best wishes,

Dr Chris Cocking
Dept of Psychology
London Metropolitan University

You-tube links of footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, Tunisia

He's not the President- he's a v naughty boy! parts 1&2
Footage of protests in Monastir, Tunisia 13th Jan 2011, taken from the Ribat castle, where 'Monty Python's the Life of Brian' was filmed. You can see that while the crowd comprehensively destroy a cafe that belonged to the extended business empire of the Ben Ali family, they are selective in their attacks & no other properties in the vicinity are targeted