Riots spark a UK Twitter record. And that was just Monday.

#londonriotsFour days of violence, rioting and looting in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other parts of the UK have seen frenzied exchanges of information, rumour and analysis on Twitter, leading to a record-breaking spike in traffic.

Monday 8th August – after the initial unrest in Tottenham on Saturday night had spread to other parts of London on Sunday – saw Twitter’s biggest ever spike in UK traffic online, accounting for 1 in every 170 UK internet visits.

Data analysts Hitwise, who have pulled the figures together in their blog post London Riots cause traffic spike on Twitter, estimate that there were over 3.4 million visits to the Twitter homepage from the UK population alone.

‘To put that in context,’ they say, ‘Twitter received 15% more visits than it did around the super-injunctions scandal, the previous biggest spike in its UK history.’

Interestingly, the spike in traffic wasn’t repeated on other social networks such as Facebook. They suggest that this could be because the most prolific users of Twitter are based in London postcodes. Here’s the data to back this up:

Hitwise analysis of Twitter spike after London riots

However, it’s worth noting that the Hitwise analysis took place before the disorder had spread to cities north of London, so this could change over the course of the week: ‘Facebook over-indexes in northern cities such as Hull, Manchester, Doncaster and Blackburn. The London skew of Twitter users is a strong indicator why Twitter was the preferred social platform to share news on the riots and hence why it received its biggest ever traffic spike.’

Our report in Media Week today says that the thirst for information has also drawn record numbers news channels, which corresponds with Hitwise’s other findings that news and media websites have seen the highest traffic so far this year, with a 14% spike in traffic on Monday and Tuesday.

News and media website traffic after the riots

With rioters using Twitter (and BlackBerry Messenger) to coordinate activities, the site risks accusations of being a platform for inciting hatred or violence and, as we reported earlier in the week, there have been calls to close them down. It is unlikely to happen, both from a business standpoint and due to Twitter’s emphasis on maintaining a free flow of information.

Talking to The Telegraph, a spokesperson refers back to a blog post written by Biz Stone called Tweets Must Flow, written at the end of January at the height of the Egypt uprisings (and before a dizzying stream of events including Libya, Syria, Japan, the hacking scandal and of course the riots). ‘Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed.’

The Telegraph reports that the spokesman, ‘…refused to reveal whether the company was working with the police to help locate people who have used the service to organise lootings and riots. They also refused to disclose whether they had already handed over contact details of certain Twitter users to the authorities.’