Over the past few days, the media has been reporting on a “surge” in violent crime in the capital. Figures such as Met Commissioner Cressida Dick and Home Secretary Amber Rudd have framed this fluctuation with a narrative that social media is playing a key role in arguments between young people, particularly those in gangs, by allowing them to react quickly to online grievances with offline violence. For instance, Met Commissioner Dick claims that “sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram are partially to blame for the bloodshed” (source). As someone who researches online aggression, I find this notion particularly interesting.
Are they right?
Well, yes and no. Can social media exacerbate conflict and intracommunity friction? Absolutely. Let’s step back in time to a world before the ubiquitous internet, when one neighbour decides to be rude to another face-to-face. The witnesses of the actual incident might include the family members of the individuals involved, and maybe the odd person wandering past in ear-shot. News of the incident would only travel as fast as the people could chat to others, whether over the phone or in person. The news would spread relatively slowly, at an unequal pace. Some people would find out much sooner than others. Some might never find out. Those involved in the altercation are unlikely to find out what people’s responses to the news are in real-time, if at all, and the newsworthiness of the incident would quickly decline as other events and incidents occur. And overall the grand total of people who would hear of the incident would probably remain fairly low.
However, when we bring the smartphone and social media into the equation, everything changes. Even if the incident occurs offline rather than on a social media platform somewhere, it can be recorded or broadcast live, leading to an instantaneous wider involvement of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. Those people might be friends, enemies, family, employers, strangers, even the media, and those different groups can in turn quickly and easily distribute that content further. Suddenly, being insulted by your neighbour is no longer just an unpleasant incident for you to handle alone. It has become a drama that is playing out in a very public arena, where the masses judge your character and worthiness based on your response. In some groups, the expectation will be that the target responds immediately with equal or greater force, and the pressure to do so may be immense. Failing to retaliate sufficiently may, at best, lead only to humiliation and social scorn. At worst, however, it may lead to the individual being seen as an easy target for further harassment and threats. Moreover, they (and everyone else) can see the responses to the incident from others, including mockery, further insults, and increasing levels of threat or aggression.
In short, social media has the capacity to escalate a minor, private incident into a giant, highly public maelstrom extremely quickly. The incident becomes a matter of searchable public record that can continue to aggravate long after the fact, and it can have ongoing, unexpected consequences, such as being picked up by the media or a potential future employer years later.
So, are they wrong?
Again, yes and no. The first and most obvious point, in my view, is that this sudden new “surge” is supposedly the product of sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, but these platforms have been around for years. YouTube was released in 2005, thirteen years ago. Instagram (2010) is eight years old, and Snapchat (2011) is seven years old. In fact, plenty of the biggest platforms have been around for a long time now:
- 2004 Facebook: fourteen years old
- 2005 YouTube: thirteen years old
- 2007 Twitter, Tumblr: eleven years old
- 2009 WhatsApp: nine years old
- 2010 Instagram: eight years old
- 2011 Snapchat, WeChat: seven years old
This calls into question how such apps and sites can play a significant role in what is currently happening. To be absolutely clear, I entirely believe that they are playing a part, but this cannot be the only issue (and in fairness, I don’t think anyone is arguing such an extreme position), otherwise the apparent jump in gun and knife crimes of the past few weeks would have been going on for the past decade. So what else can we consider?
A first aspect to look at is the austerity measures that were introduced ten years ago in 2008. These involved cutting spending on welfare, council funding, and public services. Evidence suggests that such cuts have disproportionately affected the poorest in the country, and there is an inextricable link between poverty and crime. One measure of poverty – the use of foodbanks – has seen a sharp increase. The UK’s largest foodbank has gone from handing out 41,000 food packs per year in 2009/2010 to handing out 1.2 million in 2016/2017 (source). Similarly, child poverty has continued to worsen in schools (source), and since 2010, councils have had their budgets cut by an average of 26% (source). Inevitably, this leads to a reduction in community services, and this has included the closure of hundreds of youth and SureStart Centres (source). With those closures, outreach programs, after-school clubs, mental health services, advice and careers services, and more have been lost. These are of greatest importance in the lowest income areas and provide crucial support to struggling parents and young people. And finally, for good measure, since 2010, the number of police officers has fallen by 21,500 due to ongoing budget cuts (source).
At the risk of stating the obvious, such services facilitate parents going to work, earning an income for their families, and setting that same example of going to work to their children. Those childcare services and clubs get young people off the streets. Those mental health services provide invaluable support for struggling individuals. Those outreach programs provide advice, skills, and opportunities to create better futures. And those police help to keep communities safe.
To restate my position, I don’t doubt that social media is playing a role in violent crime. However, my perspective is that it is acting as an accelerant on a fire that quietly started smouldering around a decade ago and that has finally started to reach a critical mass. It is amplifying, rather than creating, what we are seeing, and focussing primarily on social media (as the media has largely done) necessarily takes attention away from finding a solution.
Why focus on social media then?
All the way back in 1982, Sherry Turkle described a phenomenon known as the subjective computer. Hopefully she will forgive me for grossly simplifying her work down to this: people see in computers what they want to see. The fearful see horrors. The confident see opportunities. And if your agenda requires you to find a convenient monster, then look no further: social media is easy to demonise. After all, the computer can’t object to its portrayal, or insist that statements are fact-checked, or pull the trigger on litigation. But computers are simply tools, like hammers or cars, that can be used constructively or destructively. The outcome is not the fault of the tool. It is the user that we need to focus on.
Another reason for blaming the machine, is that it is highly expedient to pass along the responsibility for stabbings, shootings, and gang violence to someone else. Solutions to these issues are complex, deeply time-consuming, and extremely expensive. They can take as much time to resolve – often decades – as they took to develop, and if we are being extremely cynical, these sorts of timeframes do not make for snappy political soundbites. It is much easier to demand that social media platforms “do something” about online messages related to gang violence than it is to invest billions in councils, policing, community services, and outreach programs that target the individuals most at risk of falling into gangs.
Even if addressing online content were somehow a silver bullet to this issue, the relevant content is incredibly difficult to identify in the first place. Some gangs, for instance, use coded language to refer to themselves, their key locations, and criminal activities. A forensic lexicographer could spend a lifetime recording a criminal dictionary for each major gang in London and still never be finished, if only because those codes are changing all the time. And even if such dictionaries existed and those posts could be flagged up using them, isolating the “real” threats from the endless streams of bluster is extremely difficult. For every thousand problematic posts that might hint at criminal activity, only one might have real intention behind it, but the police would struggle to know which those were without expending untold hours chasing down the posters (if they could even find them), interviewing each one, and then coming to a more informed conclusion. So why not simply suppress the content rather than send officers chasing the ghosts in the wires? Because this does nothing more than hide the symptoms. Users who find themselves censored will shift to another platform where they are free to express themselves, and there are thousands of platforms out there, all begging for more users.
Does this mean social media platforms have nothing to do? Of course not. They should be as active in their community and as vigilant for signs that their sites are being used to organise and escalate offline crime as they can, and they should be constantly striving to do better, and be better. However, framing social media as the cause of gang-related (or indeed, any) bloodshed is going to do very little to bring about a solution. Instead, the focus needs to be on primarily on the people, not the platforms they are using.