As violent crime in the capital continues to rise, authorities struggle to find substantive solutions to these tensions. Is social media paving the way for positive influence and transformation within society?  

In the midst of an age where youth violence and gang culture is supposedly said to be becoming digitised, social media is often portrayed as a tool for glamourising and romanticising gang culture and success through illegitimate means. However,  it is also this perception that dismisses its potential to act as a tool of empowerment and advancement for those vulnerable to gangs and violent crime.

Not only did 2018 see a devastating number of stabbings and gun related deaths and injuries, a toll reaching 153 in London (Met Police Statistics), but it also saw the government fruitlessly try and pin the blame on social media. As violent crime continued to spiral, the government made moves towards censoring and further criminalising drill music on Youtube and other social media sites. However, a countering trend, especially within London, has been the creation of YouTube short films meant to portray the struggles of living within the midst of areas susceptible to gang activity and violence; The most notable of which, “Shiro’s story” and “Amani” both star Joivan Wade, a Lewisham born actor who used Youtube as an apparatus to propel himself into the film industry. This conceptualises social media within a new light – is it the demonised entity that it is described to be? Or can social media sites, such as YouTube, positively impact the rise in violent crime? 

AMANI | Short Film (2019) – Based On A True Story

I interviewed ‘D’, a young woman from Birmingham, who grew up surrounded by violent crime and gang culture, to seek and express the opinion of those on the frontline of the crisis – those that are often neglected in policy making. Much of the legislation created in the attempt to stop the rise of violent crime and gang culture, for example the criminalisation of drill music, has been by those in power who have never experienced it first hand. If we want to gain a productive insight for shaping future policy, we must focus on the grassroots. For privacy reasons, names have been changed to keep identities anonymous. 

When asked about the role of social media, D expressed “cynicism”, especially due to the use of media platforms to spread illegitimate activity even more ferociously than before. For example, Snapchat and Facebook have had several instances where they could actively, and rightly, be accused of inciting trouble, as seen through the sale of acid prior to Notting Hill Carnival in 2017 on snapchat. During the 2011 Riots, Facebook and BBM was censored by the government due to its pivotal role in aiding the riots to spread. We see a new manifestation of violence as a result of the rise of technology – violence now is much more difficult to regulate. Regulation often means violation of data policy, causing a paradox of moral hierarchy between privacy or prevention of violence. However, we must remember that this isn’t just monopolised to crime, with the global tech revolution that occurred in the last three decades, it has caused a widespread compression of time and space, making beliefs in general easier to spread, not just negative notions such as violence.

Regardless of these negative effects, D was quick to recognise the potential for a positive impact outweighing the dangers of social media. Social media platforms provide opportunities that extend past those that are offered by formal institutions and thus often override the formal biases that face many that are vulnerable to gang culture and violent crime. Institutionalised racism and classism is easier overcome within the realm of the internet, especially with the rising popularity of crowd funding sites, such as “Gofundme” providing an alternative to traditional financial structures. These positives further extend to social aspects of gang culture, with D arguing:  “Although everyone watches YouTube for entertainment, short films such as “Shiro’s Story” makes teenagers realise how far people can really go to obtain and sustain their status. It allows viewers to analyse the gang culture and lifestyle from an exterior perspective whilst relating to producers coming form similar [socio-economic] backgrounds to them”. There is thus an opportunity to relate to those behind the film. Social media in general is a platform which allows people to identify the goals and successes they want to achieve, and in the process also identify role models that people may to aspire to be.

With such under representation of ethnic minorities in industries such as law, finance and medicine coinciding with the over representation of them within the criminal justice system, it is easy for young ethnic minority kids, already statistically more at risk of gang recruitment in comparison to their white counterparts, to get caught up in a self fulfilling prophecy. This further is reinforced by stereotypes held in other formal societal institutions. Yet, social media provides a window to see those such as John Boyega, Joivan Wade, and Stormzy as positive role models that found success through pursuing legitimate means, with the latter of which providing a joint scholarship programme for Cambridge University. Stormzy, at his book launch in the Barbican in 2018, in fact urged youths “Don’t think because you come from a certain community that studying at one of the highest education institutions in the world isn’t possible.” The role of social media platforms such as YouTube in assisting Stormzy’s widespread success is un-ignorable, and thus cannot be dismissed in playing a role to social initiatives widening prospectives and opportunities for those coming from deprived communities. 

What my interview with D essentially suggested was that whilst social media is still used as a tool to instigate drama, we cannot eradicate it as a positive apparatus in slowly implementing change. Instagram, for example, has created a platform in which organisations such as 4mation campaign were able to materialise to connect to youths nationally. Social media is not only a platform for the advancement of youths that have limited access to formal institutions that drive success, but it is a platform which is used to unite. We cannot rely on policy change within the government to implement change when those that are most affected are those that have the most strained relationship with governmental powers. Social media allows change from the bottom up, a strategy that looks to be the most realistic in stopping youth violence and gang crime.