Social media

Social media and politics combined Wednesday when the University Democrats hosted a Twitter town hall meeting with Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell.

The audience was able to field questions to Leffingwell by tweeting to #UDemsATX, inquiring on issues ranging from energy rate increases to Occupy Austin’s recent eviction. Leffingwell also announced his support at the meeting for a medical school at UT and the creation of six-and-a-half mile high-speed rail in central Austin.

“Rail is the future of Austin, as it is the future of every great city in the United States,” Leffingwell said. “It would be a tremendous economic stimulant, and eventually we could get it across the river to Riverside [Drive] and towards the airport.”

The mayor is running for reelection this year, and Leffingwell said he hopes to receive the continued endorsement of the UDems as he prepares for his fourth city race.

“We try to maintain a close relationship with guys in the University Democrats,” Leffingwell said. “UT is both the cultural and the economic center of Austin, and we have to keep close ties with the university that brings so much incentive to the city.”

Politicians and electioneers have been making sustained use of Twitter since President Barack Obama’s supporters used the service to mobilize grassroots support for his campaign in 2008. Obama also hosted a national open town hall meeting last year using Twitter, which inspired UDems president Huey Fischer to host Wednesday’s meeting, Fischer said.

“Social media is a huge component of the UDems,” Fischer said. “We have Twitter, Facebook, a Youtube account, Foursquare and a website. All of these tools are just really valuable to connect with supporters and with students especially.”

Using Twitter to enhance discussion and promote interaction is exciting for the UDems, said communications director Andre Treiber, and this is the first time the organization has been able to do this with social media.

“With Twitter, things can be discussed in a public forum without interrupting the flow of the meeting,” Fischer said. “It lets us advertise to members and get discussion going by directly communicating with the speaker. In the past it was just commentary and discussion.”

Peck Young, director of Austin Community College’s center for public policy and political studies, spoke at the meeting after Leffingwell in support of the 10-1 plan for geographic representation. The plan would divide Austin into 10, one-member districts, and Young said that the city needed the help of students to legalize the plan.

Young said he believes the plan will make Austin more democratic, continuing a tradition of progress that the UDems have been fighting for since the 1970s.

“Today we have two progressives running against each other to decide who’s the more liberal,” Young said. “We’ve obviously changed a lot since the time when electing a mayor depended on picking someone who looked good in a KKK sheet. That change was largely the result of the University Democrats 40 years ago.”

A woman walks past a damaged supermarket in Ealing, west London, on Tuesday after a night of rioting. In London, groups of young people rampaged for a third straight night, setting buildings, vehicles and garbage dumps alight, looting stores and pelting police officers with bottles and fireworks into early Tuesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

LONDON — Some of the text messages read like real-time rallying calls for rioters.

“If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east London,” one looter messaged before the violence spread.

Others direct troublemakers to areas of untapped riches — stores selling expensive stereo equipment, designer clothes, alcohol and bicycles.

Most show a portent of even worse things to come.

Encrypted messages sent via BlackBerrys are being used by mobs to encourage rioting across Britain — mayhem born of an incendiary mixture of conditions that converged during Europe’s sleepy summer vacation season.

Many of the masked or hooded youths have been photographed typing messages on their cellphones while flames engulf cars and buildings.

Conditions have been perfect for the unrest. Britain’s economic outlook is bleak, youths are out of school and unemployed, police ranks have been depleted by summer vacations, and social media sites — coupled with dramatic video of the rioting — have bolstered a mob mentality and spread disobedience.

Alcohol has also played a part. Some of Tuesday night’s rioters bragged of booze-fueled rampages. Britain has a culture of binge drinking with a recent surge in alcohol-related diseases among the young. The legal age to purchase alcohol in Britain is 18.

BlackBerry’s messaging system is popular among youths because it’s free, compatible with multimedia and private, compared with Facebook and Twitter. Its encrypted messages give troublemakers an added benefit: Police aren’t able to immediately trace message traffic the way they can with regular cellphones.

Social media have been a potent force in fueling the riots that began Saturday in London’s boroughs and later spread to other cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol. Messages have also been sent via regular texts and on Facebook.

One 18-year-old boy was detained Tuesday for allegedly encouraging violence on Facebook. Community members alerted police to the posts, according to police superintendent Athol Aitken. The teenager is expected in Dundee court on Wednesday.

But the social networks also have provided refuge for fearful residents and shop owners who say police efforts have been feeble and slow. Twitter is helping to pinpoint areas of violence, organize community cleanup groups and alert people of alternative routes they can use.

BlackBerry said it was cooperating with police, but shutting down the messaging system could penalize more than just the troublemakers. More than 45 million people use the BlackBerry messaging system worldwide. President Barack Obama is said to use the same secure system to communicate.

“We feel for those impacted by recent days’ riots in London,” Patrick Spence, a Blackberry managing director of global sales and regional marketing, said in a statement. “We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

The company declined to answer further questions about providing data to police or how a message service suspension might work.

David Lammy, a lawmaker from the Tottenham area where the rioting began, called for BlackBerry to suspend its messaging service. On Tuesday, hackers compromised BlackBerry’s blog site in response to the company saying it would cooperate with police.

Britain’s riots began after last week’s police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four. According to British media, one of the last messages that Duggan sent was via BlackBerry’s messaging system, also known as BBM.

“The Feds are following me,” he allegedly wrote to his girlfriend, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Some of the rioters have laughed off claims that the unrest was sparked by any one grievance. One man who identified himself only as “Zed” said the riots were “just an excuse for everyone to smash up the place” and that stuff “tastes better when it’s free.”

Britain is full of contrasts between the haves and have-nots, where areas of soot-stained apartment buildings are a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. It is also a place where the class system is imprinted on the country’s social fabric, seen clearly in the political and business elite.

“You have groups who are highly technically integrated but socially completely outclassed and alienated,” said Rodney Barker, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics.

Prime Minister David Cameron, known for his posh accent and privileged education, is thought to have lost votes in last year’s election because he was seen as too much of an elitist who couldn’t understand the common man.

The past year has seen mass protests against the tripling of student tuition fees and cuts to public sector pensions. In November, December and March, small groups broke away from large marches in London to loot. In the most notorious episode, rioters attacked a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, to a charity concert.

“This is an uprising of all people — black, white, gay, straight,” said a man who identified himself as Bryn Phillips, 28, who picked through the ruins of a convenience store in east London on Monday night.

According to July figures from Britain’s Office of National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds is unemployed — the highest rate of youth unemployment in some 20 years. Overall unemployment rates, however, have remained stable.

“These young people, who seem to have no stake in society, are trashing their own communities,” said lawmaker Diane Abbott, whose Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency has seen a lot of the trouble. “We cannot continue to have increasing numbers of looters on the streets night after night.”

Hot-tempered youths are fueled by temperate and drier-than-normal weather. One middle-aged man carrying a recycling bin full of beer bottles and soft drinks Monday night blamed the government’s planned spending cuts — some of the harshest cuts since World War II designed to slash Britain’s multibillion-pound deficit.

“People are traumatized by the cuts,” he said, identifying himself only as Joe.

Cameron condemned the violence and warned that 16,000 police officers would take back the country’s streets. More BlackBerry messages were encouraging weekend protests.

“This is definitely not the 1980s,” said London School of Economics political scientist Tony Travers, referring to past race riots and other unrest. “And it is not the same as the instance that occasionally happened in French suburbs. Tottenham and other areas are relatively poor [but] they are not areas of unremitting poverty.”

Britain’s police force has been weakened by budget cuts and summer vacations. It’s also no secret that most officers don’t carry guns, and water cannons and tear gas haven’t been used in years. Officials said they may be forced to use plastic bullets to control the crowds if violence persists.

“Different people have different views about the causes, but there is no excuses for it,” said Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Social media and journalism are changing at a rapid pace, and understanding these changes will be vital, said a panel of communication professors Friday.

At the 12th-annual International Symposium on Online Journalism, journalists, editors and professors from universities around the world discussed the consequences of these changes during a series of 13 lectures held April 1 and 2. The goal of the symposium was to look critically at issues facing the journalism industry.

The symposium was put on by the Knight Chair in Journalism, the UNESCO Chair in Communication at UT and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at UT.

Dale Blasingame, a graduate student at Texas State University, said newspapers and television stations are making admirable efforts to bring in readers and viewers, but people should not rely on those sources alone.

He said Twitter has changed the process of gatekeeping — determining what stories make it on air or into print.

“Twitter allows early gatekeepers to jump gates and deliver news,” Blasingame said.

He referred to the man who tweeted the first picture of the plane that landed in the Hudson River. The man released the picture before the media got there, and it went viral.

“Stations must go to where the consumers are and give them a reason to be consumers,” Basingame said.

Carrie Brown-Smith, an assistant professor of the University of Memphis, and Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor at Lehigh University, conducted a study and found college students mostly use Twitter for connectivity, information, expression and entertainment.

In their study, they determined that college students use Twitter to informally communicate with others, usually with people they already know.

“They see it as a way that they can talk to their friends away from authority figures,” Brown-Smith said. “They are sort of in this pseudo-anonymous space.”

Littau said young people are receptive to getting news on their Twitter feeds. But college students want to interact and have relationships with the journalists on Twitter, he said.

“News organizations are trying to think of how they can engage younger people,” Littau said.

Cory Leahy, assistant director of the McCombs School of Business, said the issues discussed during the panel are relevant to the work she does.

“It’s comforting to know that all outlets of all shapes and sizes are trying to figure it out at the same time, too,” Leahy said.

She said the journalism industry is changing, but she hopes it will continue to grow.

“There is a demonstrated desire by the wide audience of the world that information is still needed,” Leahy said. “The trick is to find the audience and be where they are and to not deliver what they want, but deliver what’s useful in a way that they will consume it.”