Student protesters steal a march on social media

By Anna Adams
Interactive reporter, BBC News

image captionJournalism student Jason Curtis took this photo at Millbank Tower before the windows were smashed

It's not often you can cover a story from your desk almost as well as you could if you were on the ground.

But social media and networking sites meant the most powerful images from the student protest were broadcast online before they hit television screens.

As students and onlookers filmed scenes on their mobile phones it was websites like Flickr and YouTube that provided some of the most memorable footage.

Asif Khan, who was working in the 30 Millbank building, took his mobile phone to the reception and filmed the moment protesters smashed through the windows with batons.

There were no other cameras inside the tower and his footage was used by broadcasters around the world.

Mr Khan said: "I work on the 27th floor so when I heard what was happening I went to reception just as the students broke in and began marching through reception."

He posted the footage on his Flickr account and within minutes his friends were Tweeting a link to it.

But social media played a bigger part than just reporting the events, it was used to galvanise student support from across the UK.

The National Union of Students set up a Facebook page with details of where to meet and more than 20,000 signed up.

'Pretend violence turned real'

Many more turned up on the day, but it was an early indicator of the strength of feeling among the student population.

More than 50,000 protesters are estimated to have taken part so the micro-blogging site Twitter was used to tell people picking up the rear of the demo what was happening at the front.

Anyone who was following Ian Jones, a student from London, was given minute by minute updates in real time.

Just before the scenes turned ugly he Tweeted: "I'm right outside Millbank Tower. It's a mixture of pretend violence and pretend partying."

Then minutes later: "Police just tried to storm Millbank. They were forced back." Then he warned: "Pretend violence has turned real."

And later: "Temperature is dropping as the sun is hiding behind the buildings and it's getting cold so I think people will start leaving as it gets darker."

Sarah Noorbakhsh from London also used Twitter to give vivid eyewitness accounts: "I saw students rush inside the building. They stood on top of the reception desk and made protest chants. I'm standing two metres away from a bonfire and there is a smell of plastic in the air."

It was these short updates that gave a real sense of the atmosphere outside the Millbank building.

'Please proceed'

Some used the site to warn people where there was a weaker police presence.

image captionAndrew Smith, who works in Millbank Tower, took this photo from the inside

The Liberal Democrats headquarters in Cowley Street was a potential target.

@KhurmArshad Tweeted: "Dear Students Please proceed to Liberal Democrats, 4 Cowley Street, after Millbank Tower. Show them who's boss."

But when police arrived, @politicsworld told protesters: "Rozzers have LibDem HQ in Cowley Street surrounded."

The online anarchist group Last Hours promised to keep those who couldn't attend the protest up to date with a live Twitter feed. They told followers: "Chants of 'cut our education and we'll cut you'" and "Smoke bomb launched at Parliament."

They also posted pictures of fires that were started outside the office block.

Workers inside Millbank emailed the BBC website.

Angela Hayward said she was shocked as she came face to face with the protesters in reception.

"We are unable to get away from the building. The building still smells of the smoke bombs released by the protesters who managed to get in. It's tripping the fire alarm."

NUS president Aaron Porter used his Twitter account to condemn the violence.

At 1300 he had tweeted: "The first students have arrived at the rally point. Amazing turnout! This is the biggest student demo in generations."

But by 4pm he said: "Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest."

Flashmob rumours

Other students who marched said a minority had sullied their demonstration.

Sarah Phillipson emailed: "I'm ashamed of the individuals that ruined what was a peaceful protest. The focus should not be on the bad things that happened rather than the views of the educated individuals that came to put across our point sensibly."

When the crowds dispersed, others used Twitter to try to keep the protests going elsewhere.

There were mentions of planned flashmobs outside the homes of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable - @YorkVision Tweeted: "informed by anon source that tonight at 6 there will be candlelit flash mob outside Nick Clegg's house."

But the rumours amounted to little.

As the dust settles, some of the bloggers, emailers, Tweeters and "armchair protesters" have taken a more reflective tone and denounced the violence.

But others have already logged onto Facebook to ask "when's the next one?"