After Woolwich: Social Reactions on Social Media


Funder: European Social Research Council

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the 22nd May 2013 in Woolwich rapidly acquired the properties of a signal crime (Innes, 2004). The changes to public and institutional perceptions of security were amplified by a series of secondary incidents of violence in the days and weeks following the original crime.


The study seeks to develop the Rigby homicide as a case study of social reactions to high profile major crimes to generate new knowledge about how publics interpret and make sense of such events. The proposed approach blends conceptual and methodological innovation by using social media data to study collective reaction patterns in ways not previously possible through more orthodox social science. Specifically, this involves examining how publics think, feel, or behave in relation to high profile crimes, and tracking these reactions as they ‘travel’ across public digital social networks. This will allow exploration into how perceptions, attitudes and polarised narratives emerge, are communicated, become modified, spread and ultimately decay.

The research has found that:

  • Social media is increasingly driving the tenor and tone of public reactions. The research has tracked social media traffic from the first tweet at the crime scene through to the conclusion of the court case. The research found that social media has:

  • Implications for the first response by police to such attacks, with witnesses tweeting direct from the scene;

  • Social media becomes a key information source for the public when such incidents occur, there was in excess of 800 tweets a minute about the Lee Rigby murder at its peak;

  • The suspects were first named on Twitter - several hours before their identities were released by the broadcast media.

  • In the days and weeks after the murder there was a spike in hate crimes and public order incidents. These incidents happened in different towns and cities across the country.

  • Over the past few years the beliefs of young Muslim people that police will treat them fairly has been declining (as shown in the graph below). This has important implications for the Government's Prevent Strategy and how counter-terrorism resources are used following future incidents.

The findings from this study have been published in a working paper available to download in full here.

The study has informed an ESRC evidence briefing on Security, Terrorism & Social Media, click here to download.