London Murders Leave U.K. Asking If Social Media Is to Blame

(Bloomberg) -- The rows of flowers and candles grieving the stabbing of teenager Israel Ogunsola in the east London neighborhood of Hackney lie four deep in a narrow alley.

It’s one of a growing number of memorials to murder victims in the capital from the last few weeks. A 25-minute drive north takes you to the spot where 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake died in an unrelated shooting, just two days earlier.

A surge in youth violence has left London police investigating more than 50 murders since the start of the year -- with more than half involving people under 30. That compares with 115 homicides in all of 2017, according to data provided by the Metropolitan Police. Officers are so stretched that the Met has brought in help from a nearby force.

Cuts to police funding and a rise in gun availability have been cited as potential causes for the escalation. But Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is zeroing in on the risks posed by social media. Once in the background, internet platforms are now creating an environment where graphic video is shared with impunity and where online threats and provocation morph into face-to-face violence.

"You can confront people online, you can make these threats online. No one wants to lose face," said Junior Smart, who served prison time for drug offenses and now works with gang members. "Authenticity is everything and then it’s about being that person."

After Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was shot April 2, social media posts on Facebook Inc.’s Instagram were shared that appear to take responsibility for her death, and saying anyone hanging out with members of other gangs was fair game.

"I’ve just been sitting with a kid, whose friends are trolling him very badly online, nasty insults, threatening to burn him down," said Smart, who now works with disadvantaged young people at the St. Giles Trust charity. "If he backs down, that will be broadcast across all his friends, perhaps the school and then the whole neighborhood."

Britain’s top police officer, Cressida Dick, has said that trivial disputes online are escalating faster, while Home Secretary Amber Rudd published a report Monday that demanded that social-media companies do more to prevent their sites becoming hosts for violent content.

Passive Hosts

"The status quo cannot continue: these platforms are no longer just passive hosts," the Home Office said. "Internet companies must go further and faster to tackle illegal content online."
The government for the first time will also consider the legal liability that social media companies have for the content shared on their sites, the report said.

A spokeswoman for Facebook in London declined to immediately comment.

Videos and pictures of young people entering neighborhoods that supposedly belong to rival groups and making taunts appear daily on social media, according to Catch-22, a charity that has just conducted a study of how Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and Periscope are being used.

That can then translate into an expectation of reprisals, said Tom Gash, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and an adviser to police forces on strategy. Committing violence is not “a smart choice unless your logic has become so distorted, sometimes it’s almost like you feel compelled to respond."

Gun Violence

While the overwhelming majority of the deaths have come from stabbings, gun violence has also increased. There have been seven fatal shootings so far this year, compared with 10 in 2017, the Met Police said.
In U.K. emergency rooms focused on trauma care, between 30 and 50 percent of patients come from violent assaults, with an increasing number of firearm injuries, according to Duncan Bew, a surgeon at King’s College Hospital in south London. Doctors who once could focus on repairing one part of a person’s body need to adapt to treat a host of injuries, he said.

Anthony Gunter, a former youth worker who is now principal lecturer in criminology at the University of East London, bemoaned how chaotic and random the violence has been among young people.

"It’s much more difficult to work out where the next one is going to happen," he said. "They don’t want to be seen to be weak. They’re going to push their chest out and that’s the worst thing they can do."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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