In all the news pieces about the spate of young people killed in fatal stabbings and shootings, one piece stood out. It was by retired chief superintendent Victor Olisa. He talked about a “divide between the haves and the have nots.”
Access to mental health, cuts to youth services, policing practices and cuts to policing are all factors, of course. Social media is often held up as playing a key role, too. And it does – but not in the way we’ve been hearing.
The head of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, recently accused social media sites of driving violence, telling the Times they ‘rev people up’ and normalise violence. Certainly, WhatsApp and other instant messaging apps allow users to communicate free from state sponsored snooping, making it difficult for police to track deals.
But none of this gives the full picture. The problem with crime and social media is more nuanced – and many of us are guilty.
Perhaps even more than Facebook, Instagram – which allows users to post photos and comments – is popular with companies who use it to advertise through a different medium. Crucially, Instagram has been used to successfully market the idea of spending money and showing off about it. Twenty years ago, telling people how much you spent on your clothes was considered shameful. But today we unashamedly share with the rest of the world our Zara jeans, expensive trainers and a face of makeup that possibly cost more than the jeans and the trainers put together. We all knew the serial bragger who just had to tell everyone about his third holiday of the year and we couldn’t stand him. In fact, we probably made fun of him. But not anymore. Now, we have bragging rights on each coffee we buy and the view from every hotel or Airbnb we’ve ever stayed at. Not to mention the perfect relationship that just everyone must know about. The shameful has become shameless.
Of course, the capitalist economy thrives when a sizeable portion of the population is spending their disposable income, and there are wider arguments about neoliberalism we can leave for another time. Shopping and holidaying are undeniably fun pastimes, but need we show off about it?
This aspect of social media is overlooked in discussions on gang crime and the pressures on young people. Instead the emphasis is on rap music videos posted by groups calling themselves gangs - in reality, often just the foot soldiers, not big-time gangsters. Have a look. They’re often skinny kids on bicycles doing the dirty work for the big guys in the hope of making enough money to buy everything they’ve dreamed of. Sadly, it is often these children who end up doing the stabbing and shooting and being stabbed and shot themselves.
Whilst the videos highlight turf wars, focussing on them also serves to cast the mainly young protagonists as villains in a war on crime and drugs when really, they are children who have fallen prey to grooming by older drug dealers and criminals. It may be difficult to admit, but the reality is that they are the victims.
Many of these young people face the serious threat of violence if they don’t join the gangs who run their areas, unpoliced. But there’s also the frustration that everyone around them - when we live a large portion of our life online, the people online become our community - is wealthy.
In reality, many of us adults can buy those Zara jeans and pay for Instagrammable meals and nights out with our overdrafts and credit cards. Credit which turn in to bills we have to pay off. But kids don’t understand that. They see that things cost money, and some feel that they’ll never have a job good enough, or even a job at all. Gang membership promises them that money.
For the young people who don’t see a way out of poverty or at best, low-income work, the constant feed of expensive outfits and holiday snaps exemplify what they do not have. A decade ago, we could largely blame the phenomenon on the rich and famous and the athletes with their own newfound wealth. But now the responsibility lies with everyone posting snaps of a life many cannot afford.