On 4 December 2015 in Hoxton, East London, 18-year-old Macel Addai was murdered by four men who arrived in a convoy of cars with the sole purpose of attacking him. Members of the Fellows Court gang, they had been involved in threatening verbal exchanges on social media against Addai who was a member of the rival Hoxton Boy gang, including uploading rap music videos openly taunting rival gang members.

On their arrival that night, Addai knew he was in danger and tried to flee. He fell while running enabling the men to catch him and stab him over 14 times. The Evening Standard reported the four men involved were all found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2016. The judge told them during sentencing, “The deliberate journey in Hoxton Boy territory and your swift and savage actions that night, the jury were sure in the cause of the four of you that you had violence in your minds.”

The increase in knife violence across England and Wales, especially in the capital, in recent years has been an ongoing issue of concern for police forces, social services, and community groups. Each month that passes records a new wave of violent knife attacks and the deaths of more young people on the streets. In many incidents, these youngsters are stabbed multiple times and left to die where they fall.  While the death toll for such stabbing incidents is high, the number of those wounded is even higher.

“The increase is also down to the impunity of people who feel they can walk around with a knife and not feel challenged. It’s the norm and that is wholly wrong,” said Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Met Police Federation, reported the Telegraph, after six people were murdered in knife incidents across the last week of April in 2017.

BBC News stated in November 2017 that an incident involving a knife takes place across England and Wales on average every 14 minutes with more than 35% of these incidents in the previous 12 months happening in London. The Independent reports shocking figures of fatal stabbings taking place every three days in London, with a total of 29 people killed in offences using a knife so far in 2018 alone. Furthermore, on 5 March 2018, Get West London reported statistics of 20% of all knife crime in the capital being linked to gangs.

The Chief of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, announced last week that she believes social media is a significant factor in the increase in knife crime in the London area. The feuds that are commonly beginning online, she says, seem to escalate very quickly and often spill over into violent encounters on the streets resulting in the death of one or more individuals involved.

The availability of the internet and social networking platforms on home computers, and now mobile devices, makes it very easy for anyone to comment or upload footage to be seen by their peer group. In the case of gang rivalry, the ability to throw insults, threats, and offensive language at each other from the comfort of their own gang territory has increased its popularity. Once things are said in a public domain, however, they cannot be taken back. After a threat has been made, following up on that threat can be seen as a must if respect is to be maintained.

An NPR report back in 2015 referred to the online feuding that can so often occur on social media, especially amongst rival gangs, as ‘cyber banging’; defined as actions and exchanges of words that can then lead to real-life violence on the streets.

The focus on social media as a potential source of verbal threats turning into street violence by the Metropolitan Police follows a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the issue seen in other places.

The New York Times reported an innovative project being run from offices on Staten Island in New York where a group of tech-savvy workers at True2Life known as ‘violence interrupters’ closely monitor social media. Their roles are to try and ‘identify and de-escalate social media conflicts before the erupt into violence on the street’.  They spend over two hours each day looking for signs of risky behaviour focusing on individuals between the ages 16 to 25. When conflict is identified, they can reach out to the person involved or inform others to prevent violence occurring. During the pilot program in 2016, the workers successfully ‘interrupted 154 social media feuds’.

 “People who feel they’ve been disrespected on social media will take it on to the streets. It’s about pride and respect.”

There is no easy solution to knife violence and while some young people continue to carry knives as the norm, reducing their use in elevating physical brawls into fatal violence will be very difficult. Methods such those used at True2Life involving social media provide a modern opportunity to intervene and de-escalate online confrontations, and as a result, has the real potential to reduce the cycle of deadly violence being played out on the streets.