There has been a rise in tragic cases involving young men stabbing each other in the streets and parks of London, England. I have no doubt that there are similar situations in cities of similar size the world over. It just happens that the numbers brought it to the front pages early in this new year. The role of social media is once more brought up as one of the solutions. I do not think it is relevant and here’s why.
The heartbreak experienced by families cannot be understated or ignored. The losing of a teenage child to a pointless stabbing is every parent’s worst nightmare and creates a great deal of angst among right thinking people everywhere. In London, a city of nearly 9 million people, this end of year saw the appalling figure of 30 teenage knife deaths in 2021. This was one more than figure for 2018 and sees the media calling for answers to this complex social issue that is blighting young men in the city. One of the answers trotted out by both NGO’s and Police is that social media companies need to do something about the issue.
There are a lot of NGOs, Politicians and Police working hard to deal with this issue and they are quick to point out the solutions and things that hamper them. But none of them acknowledges that gang violence is a problem that is as old as the hills. Inter-location violence and gang membership has always been an issue among young people, especially boys, in countries all over the world and it is not just in inner cities. It is to be found everywhere. As a teenager I witnessed it every weekend in my rural childhood town, culminating in the death of a young man from another town and the jailing of a young man from mine. A tragic end to one life and a tragic beginning to another. In all aspects of life, they were identical. The same socio-economic background, the same family make up, the same prospects for life. The only thing different about these two boys was where they were from.
It seems trite, therefore, to blame social media for exasperating the problem. In fact, it is more than trite. It’s a total red herring and a distraction from the reality that social media is only a small part of the issue and even then, it is an innocent player in the drama of these kids lives. The “calling” out videos we all see online are something we generally pass over but can be shocking in their threats of violence and they mean a lot more to those to whom they are aimed. The people making these videos are only using the online space to do what they do. If they were not doing it online, they would be doing it somewhere else. It is a form of expression that is real in their lives regardless of the medium used. Is tagging and graffiti not another way to express how they feel? Is word of mouth not another way to get a meet organised between rival gangs? What about other types of crime? The medium by which the message is passed is irrelevant.
Social media did not exist when I was a kid in suburban Ireland of the mid 1980’s and it did not exist in the mid May 1940 when a fight at Baldoyle racecourse left two young men from the inner city on the brink of death after being stabbed during a fight. What is more interesting about the people injured that day is their names. 50 years later the same names were appearing with tiring regularity in reports of arrests and the district courts that I inhibited as a young police officer. This indicates to me that generational poverty is a far bigger issue than social media when looking for causes or solutions to the issue. The “inner city” with it’s deep seated anti-social attitude, multi-generational unemployment and many idle hands is far more an issue. The fact that these kids are using social media not be a surprise. They also use it for other aspects of their lives such as announcing deaths, births and marriages. In fact, as pointed out by a NGO working in London, the production values in these threat videos can often be to a very high level and this in and of itself is an outlet for their creative skills!
In her book, the Cyber Effect (2016) Mary Aiken outlines human behaviour is changed by the advent of the internet. Included in these was the multiplier effect. A message sent by one person can be seen by hundreds, thousands even millions but more than that it can be seen by the person or gang to whom it is aimed, in full technicolour. This is also true of actions. To be humiliated or shamed in real life is one thing, but for this to happen online it is so much worse. She also points out that people often say stuff online that they would never say offline. All the above are platform agnostic. They will happen anywhere on the internet, not just on social media.
Social media is used to reflect real life. People put the best and worst of themselves out there for everyone to see and if these kids are involved in “postcode” wars or baiting then this will appear in their feeds. They have a right to communicate, and companies cannot be held responsible for that. What they can do though, is enforce their own terms and conditions in a consistent and reliable manner. This is the same for other social ills and is not exclusive to knife crime. Radicalisation, cybercrime, suicide ideation, CSAM, cyberbullying is all the same and are indicative of the thin line between the right to communicate and the right to safety. It’s not an easy line to straddle.