Sunday, 21 July 2013

Conflicting views of events in Egypt

I was interviewed last week by the journalist Amel Guettatfi for a documentary for the Al Jazeera TV channel (see Youtube links below) about crowd psychology and the recent events in Egypt, and something occurred to me that I hadn't considered previously. I was looking through Press coverage since the removal of President Morsi from power in early July 2013, and more specifically the incident in Cairo on 8/7/13, where the army opened fire on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing at least 51 people and injuring 435. How this event has been portrayed since illustrates the importance of considering both sides' views (and how they also attempt to shape reality to present themselves in a better way) to understand crowd conflict.

Coverage by the BBC of this incident reports that Muslim Brotherhood protestors claim they were fired on at about 04:00 local time as they were performing dawn prayers at a sit-in protest for Morsi. However, an army spokesman claimed that they had responded to attacks from a group armed with live ammunition, petrol bombs and stones. The BBC's Lyse Doucet highlighted the importance of how these events are perceived by Muslim Brotherhood supporters;
'while both sides have video which they say proves that they are right, what matters now is what people believe happened.'
I have some sympathy with this view, as when seeking to explain how crowd conflict develops, it can be just as important to consider people's perceptions of events as it is to work out what actually happened.

However, I have also not seen any critical exploration of the order of events in the video evidence that both sides have presented to support their case. In the video footage that Muslim Brotherhood supporters show to support their claims, it is either in darkness or in the early light of dawn, whereas the footage used by the Egyptian army to support their claims shows much lighter skies, suggesting that it happened after the footage presented by the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems to me that the claims made by the Egyptian army are not strengthened by the evidence they present, and if this footage happened after they had opened fire on people at dawn prayer, then it fits with the evidence of studies of crowd conflict in the UK (eg Cocking, 2013), that the use of indiscriminate public order policing tactics tends to escalate conflict and make previously peaceful protestors see violent conflict as legitimate or even necessary in their response to such tactics. I think it's also worth noting that this incident does not seem to have put off other protestors continuing their protest in the general vicinity, and that it has also been reported by the BBC as being predominantly peaceful, so any violent responses by the crowd as a whole on the day don't seem to have continued since.

This reminds me of when the BBC was forced to make an apology in 1991 after admitting that it had reversed footage of the Battle Of Orgreave (one of the most violent confrontations of the 1984-5 UK miners' strike) to make it look like striking miners had attacked police first, when it actually happened the other way around. Actions like this by the media can have enormous effects on how such events are perceived, as it can contribute to a discourse whereby the victims of such events can instead be portrayed as the villains, something that I have explored in previous blog entries. In this particular case, the BBC don't seem to have switched footage around to create such a narrative, but they could have perhaps been a little more questioning of whether the footage shown by the Egyptian army really supported the claims they were trying to make, and if not, why have they not presented other footage that does?

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 10: 219–236

Programme details:

(Dubbed into Arabic- any translations are welcome!) (part 1) (part 2; interview with me begins at 8:02)

Thursday, 11 July 2013

San Francisco plane crash & social norms

Interesting accounts are emerging about what happened in the recent plane crash at San Francisico airport. The BBC have quoted a safety official investigating the incident who is reporting that evacuation was not immediate and was delayed by up to 90 seconds after the plane stopped. It also seems that the order to evacuate was only given after a member of the cabin crew saw fire outside the plane. It's unclear at this stage why there was a delay in evacuation (although apparently protocol can allow for such delays if it is decided as the safest course of action), but I think it highlights quite well the behavioural processes involved in such emergencies. To me it shows that social norms endure in such situations (rather than breaking down into selfish mass 'panic') because the passengers followed the instructions of the cabin staff and delayed their own evacuation until instructed to do so, rather than instinctively fleeing as soon as possible (as is often assumed in media coverage of such incidents).

I'm pleased to say that I've not yet seen descriptions of passengers' behaviour during this incident as 'panic' (although I'm sure there are some out there!), and this seemingly small detail shows quite nicely how describing such incidents in this way rarely matches up with evidence of what actually happens. Studies of human behaviour in fires (e.g. Canter, 1990; Drury & Cocking, 2007) have shown how the maintenance (and even creation) of social bonds and structures  encouarges successful evacuations in fires and other emergencies. In situations of uncertainty people can also look for guidance from others who have more experience on how to act in emergency situations. So, in the San Francisco plane crash, it seems that passengers waited for instructions on how to act from the cabin crew, and then exited the plane in what appears to be a very successful evacuation (so far there appear to have only been 2 fatalities- one of whom may have been hit by an emergency vehicle once they'd left the plane). Therefore, while such situations may very well be a highly stressful expereince for those involved, and any loss of life is a personal tragedy for the victims and their families, I feel we should remember that such incidents also illustrate the remarkable solidarity and co-operation that people affected can display towards each other.


Canter, D. (1990). Fires and human behaviour. David Fulton, London, UK

Drury, J. & Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. Unpublished manuscript. University of Sussex. Available on-line at;