“The government should consider funding programmes that educate youth workers in social media because lots of people are still using the same ideas they did in 2001 and 2005 and they are presenting them in 2017, when the scope has changed,” Pinkney told the Guardian. “If there is a fight outside school now, for example, the chances are that social media has been involved and we help professionals understand that,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, blamed social media for playing a part in youth violence. She told the Times that social media sites “rev people up” and trivial disputes could escalate into violence “within minutes” when rivals set out to goad each other on the internet.
Pinkney started running the social media sessions for youth workers a year ago after writing a report on how gangs organise themselves online. He is one of a handful of practitioners to offer workshops like this, which come at a fee to charities and schools, and says there is an urgent need for professionals to gain awareness in this area.
He shows clips of young people taunting each other through music videos and in social media posts and offers advice to youth workers about how they can protect young people from this.
Dr Simon Harding, a senior lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University, said: “We started noticing gangs using social media four years ago and since then [the numbers using it] have doubled every year … it’s hard to quantify that because there are no statistics or research, but every street gang I am familiar with now has an online presence,” he said. “Young people are completely immersed in this world … so it is a logical progression that gang activity takes place online.”
Debi Thomas, the project coordinator for the Catch22 Social Justice and Rehabilitation Dawes Unit in Wolverhampton, said that her role increasingly involved having discussions about social media. “We have started to focus on it more over the years and it is a case of talking to young people about it and warning about the dangers. It is also about looking at the preventative side of things and going into schools and providing sessions about social media. If we are talking to high risk and high criminality young people then we will discuss alternatives to them calling each other out online.”
Harding noted that a lot of gangs had websites and fan followings
online. He expressed concern about young people being groomed and inadvertently drawn into violent activities after making contact with gangs over social media. Harding said gangs used social media differently depending on their aims but popular platforms included YouTube and Snapchat.
A YouTube spokesperson said: “We work closely with organisations like the Metropolitan police to understand local context and so that we can understand where artistic expression escalates into real threats. We’re committed to continuing and improving our work on this issue to make sure YouTube is not a place for those who seek to do harm.”
A spokesperson from Snapchat said it took seriously the responsibility to create a safe environment and it had integrated new and easy ways to report report threats and violence as well as other safety concerns.
One solution to the problem is education, according to Harding. He believes schools need to be made more aware of what is going on, so young people can be educated about gang websites. This is important to make sure they are not groomed for recruitment.
Pinkney said: “In terms of policy makers it’s about linking with the
police and having an understanding, not just blaming young people. We can’t just say they are becoming more violent on social media, ignoring the situations they face now; such high unemployment, lack of opportunities and poor education. Youth violence and the number of people are becoming more extreme. If we just focus on gangs we miss out on a whole section of young people in the UK that are increasingly becoming more violent.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are aware that gangs make use of a number of social media platforms and we work closely with the police to identify good practice in tackling this issue. For example, Operation Domain is an ongoing Metropolitan police project aimed at collating all the gang-related content from social media and working with Google to remove relevant videos and materials from YouTube.
“We are also currently developing a new serious violence strategy for early 2018 that is likely to set out further action for tackling gang-related violence.”