Webwatch: Social media firms warned to act amid links to rising gang violence

Social media companies have been warned they must no longer be “passive hosts” in the fight to tackle surging levels of violence.

Ministers told firms that the status quo “cannot continue” as they unveiled a blueprint for making Britain’s streets safe following a spate of killings.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd called on platforms to review their terms and conditions and make it clear they will not host content linked to gang violence.

She said: “Some might say this is impossible. But when I called on social media companies to deal with terrorist content, they listened and took action.

“I’m asking them to do so again because it’s the right thing to do.”

A Home Office report laying out the new strategy says social media has a “substantial role” in facilitating gang activity.

Threats of violence, gang recruitment and drug dealing are glamorised in the “seemingly secluded” space, according to the paper.

It says work with social media firms is ongoing to ensure “voluntary measures” are taken to raise levels of online safety.

“We are clear that internet companies must go further and faster to tackle illegal content online,” the document says.

It raises the prospect of introducing more preventative measures within online video services.

One option could be the promotion of “trusted flaggers” within community groups to allow platforms such as YouTube to receive flags of harmful content and speed up the process of assessing material for potential removal.

Although the vast majority of social media usage “has nothing to do with serious violence”, the growth in smartphone ownership has created “an almost unlimited opportunity for rivals to antagonise each other”.

There is strong evidence that rival groups are using social media to promote gang culture, taunt each other and incite violence, according to the study.

Some gang members have thousands of followers, it says, flagging up the risk that comments and videos that rack up large numbers of views can “glamorise” weapons and gang life.

Concerns have been raised that content posted on social media is driving feuds that rapidly spill out into violence on the streets.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has warned that trivial disputes online can escalate “within minutes”.

The document noted that while overall offending continues to fall, homicide, knife and gun crime have increased since 2014 across virtually all police force areas.

Researchers identified “strong evidence” that illicit drug markets can drive sudden shifts in violence – pointing to rising levels of crack cocaine use, the emergence of substances previously known as legal highs and indications of an increase in recreational drug use among 11 to 15-year-olds.

The analysis concluded that there is no evidence that falls in stop and search are driving the spike in violence, but acknowledged the tactics can be an “important tool”.

In other findings the review detailed how:

  • A substantial proportion of serious violence is linked in some way to alcohol
  • The long-term trend in serious violence in England and Wales has been similar to that in other developed nations, suggesting a possibility of a “global component” to the pattern
  • A small minority of people commit the majority of crimes

Arguing that tackling serious violence is “not a law enforcement issue alone”, the strategy stresses the need for early intervention and prevention to stop people being drawn into crime.

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