Like so many social crises that are difficult to tackle, London’s recent spike in knife and gun crime is being blamed on the internet. Social media is driving urban violence, according to the head of the Met Cressida Dick, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the chief inspector of probation Dame Glenys Stacey last year, and the London Mayor Sadiq Khan has warned Google and YouTube in the past that its violent content could threaten lives.
“There’s definitely something about the impact of social media in terms of people being able to go from slightly angry with each other to ‘fight’ very quickly,” Dick told The Times recently. “It makes [violence] faster, it makes it harder for people to cool down. I’m sure it does rev people up.”
Footage on YouTube and other platforms – depicting people brandishing weapons, bragging about stolen goods, planning attacks and visits to rival areas – is available for young people to watch; plans for after-school fights, attacks on public transport, or recordings of fights are publicised on social media; across social networks, there are “overt expressions of wanting to hurt people, to stab, to shoot, to respond to previous issues of conflict, and respond in an extreme manner”, according to the criminologist and urban youth specialist Craig Pinkney.
But it’s not the whole story – particularly not when you remember these problems have been around for decades, long before social media existed.
Pinkney, who has been a youth worker in the field for 15 years and co-authored a paper called “Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence” last year, says social media is “one of the reasons” for the recent attacks. “But not the only reason.”
“These are impressionable young people watching, and oftentimes inspired, and it kind of becomes like a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, when you watch these types of behaviours for entertainment,” he says. “And because young people are becoming desensitised to violence – because they see it, hear about it, watch it in the news so much – the responses that we would have as adults are going to be very different to what young people feel and see.”
Pinkney urges society to focus on what such responses to this online content say about young people’s mental health, rather than simply blaming the internet without looking deeper.
“They know the police are going to be looking [at social media], and they also know the public are going to be looking,” he says. “So we’re talking about young people who don’t care. And if young people don’t care, then we have to start having conversations about mental health – what is causing our young people to put these types of things on these platforms?”
While mental health is neglected in this conversation, Pinkney warns politicians and the media not to “ignore the issues around dysfunctional families, poor leadership within the community, a lack of police presence within the community”.
Yet Pinkney also feels cuts to youth services are being ignored: “Youth centres have closed left, right and centre, and those buildings remain closed.”
Between 2010 and 2016, youth services were cut by £387m. In 2017, the chief executive of the National Youth Agency Leigh Middleton said: “Youth services have taken a real battering over the past seven years, with expenditure falling by more than 50 per cent.”
“When my son was involved in a gang ten years ago, they did have social media and they did communicate,” says Dr Suzella Palmer, a criminologist at the University of Bedfordshire who specialises in gangs, youth violence, and young black males and crime. “Certainly when he was in a gang, it was used in a way of sending messages.”
Her son is now 25, but a decade ago he was involved in youth violence in London. He was convicted in a court case with 21 young people via joint enterprise for violent disorder. During the trial, the prosecutors showed how the young people had communicated via social media to meet at a particular place from different parts of the borough.
“I wouldn’t rule social media out as a tool that can be used for young people intent on committing violence, it certainly did so in the 2011 riots” says Dr Palmer. “It can be a useful tool for people who want to go out and do bad things, to communicate, and whatever, or spur each other on. However, I think by highlighting that, what you’re doing is masking much larger causes.”
The causes Dr Palmer cites include the aforementioned “austerity measures”, music and mainstream media.
“A lot of the [rap and grime] artists and the industry generally promote music that I would say tends to be pushing these skewed ideas of masculinity, what it is to be a man, how to achieve respect through material possessions and violence,” she says. “There’s a total absence of social responsibility when it comes to mainstream media, in particular the music industry. Nobody really looks at that, they sort of fob it off.”
Like Pinkney, she points out the violence we constantly see on the news. “We’ve got 24-hour news, If there’s a war happening, people have access to it all the time – they’ve become desensitised. It’s everywhere. It’s on the media, it’s on the streets that they live. It’s everywhere… disadvantaged young people would be more susceptible to that.”
Other experts agree the focus on social media is a distraction from underlying issues.
“The role and impact of the government cuts, lack of policing in communities and dysfunctional households all need to be discussed to understand and tackle the scale of this problem,” says Shona Robinson-Edwards, a criminology researcher at Birmingham City University.
“For some young people expression via music is the only available outlet for them to express their narrative and to some their lived experiences, and if they feel that this is the only available avenue for them, then we are going to see many more young people expressing their lived experiences in this manner. However, to blame social media and music videos alone without acknowledging the aforementioned issues is irresponsible.”
“Social media is not creating ‘new’ problems – it is intensifying old ones,” says Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers, a lecturer in criminology at the Open University, who co-wrote “Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence” with Pinkney in 2017. “But the real issues that we need to address are young people growing up surrounded by extreme levels of inequality and perceiving a lack of decent employment opportunities that will enable them to live with dignity and respect.”