When 17-year-old Liam Melvin was stabbed to death in a fight, his friends took over his Bebo page in tribute. The social-networking site profile was decorated with crime-scene tape. Messages were left to their friend who had “died fighting”, alongside a photo of Liam posing with an axe.
Elsewhere on Bebo, young boys pose with guns, knives, machetes and iron bars. In some they cover their faces with scarves and balaclavas, but many stare openly and defiantly at the camera. Threats of violence and thinly veiled gang references are scattered among the usual comments on favourite bands and what school they go to.
Earlier this month, after members of the Manchester-based Fallowfield Mad Dogs gang posted photographs of themselves on MySpace making gun salutes with their fingers and boasting that they were “preparing for war”, Judge Clement Goldstone QC, who was trying 10 members of the gang for affray, attempted to limit their online activities. As a condition of each man’s conviction, the judge ruled that “he shall not post on any website at all any photo of himself taken with any of those previously named, or post a photo in conjunction with any of those previously named.”
Youth criminology expert Professor John Pitts believes online gang activity is already moving underground, leaving what “looks like a youth-club outing” on the surface for parents and the press to see. In recent months, profiles carrying weapon pictures have increasingly been set to private. Bebo users claiming membership to gangs such as Young Niddrie Terror, like Melvin, have removed the references or obscured them with acronyms.
Bebo itself is concerned by the negative publicity and is trying to respond in a positive fashion by joining Gordon Brown’s “No to Knives” coalition. After a meeting of the coalition in July, Bebo decided its role is much bigger than contending with pictures of boys posing with machetes – it believes social networking can be an agent for social change. “We should be trying to tackle the root problems,” says Dr Rachel O’Connell, the social-networking service’s chief safety officer. “We are the platform that can facilitate young people who want to shape and change the future for the better.”
Bebo intends to achieve this by connecting youth groups and charities directly to young people using the site. Teenagers may not know where to find information on careers services, mental health facilities and crime prevention, says Dr O’Connell. She wants to “democratise access to support organisations” by helping such groups set up Bebo profiles. This easy access, she believes, will remove the stigma from being well-informed and asking for help. Dr O’Connell thinks that such help for young people often arrives too late. Many organisations currently operate with “a crisis intervention model”, only getting involved when things have gone too far.
Professor Pitts is not convinced by such words. He thinks that helping young people get access to support services is a positive step “but I wouldn’t see that as social change – that seems to be making the voluntary sector more effective.”
Having studied the ramifications of social networking on gang culture and youth crime, he says these sites feed into the problem. Social networking is a powerful tool for online bullying and gang recruitment. He says: “Young people can’t escape it. The new technology amplifies people’s vulnerability. You can’t go home and shut the door and say ‘At last I’m here and it’s OK.’ Wherever they go, [with] all the technology they use, they can be targeted.”
Bebo is keen to play down this kind of abuse of its site. “In terms of those incidences, we are just another communications platform for them to do that on,” says Bebo spokesperson Sarah Gavin. “Behaviour hasn’t changed, they just have another mechanism – actually mobile phones are used far more than the internet because they’re more immediate.”
The company has an abuse-management team with powers to freeze or close profiles, reporting incidents to the police if it is deemed necessary. But that is a secondary policy: “What we’re discussing is ‘How do you prevent it in the first place?’” says Dr O’Connell.
That question has come too late for Liam Melvin and for Shakilus Townsend, 16, who was murdered in a “honey-trap” attack following a row over a girl. Townsend has been immortalised as victim of and a participant in gang culture, due to pictures of him posing with a knife on his Bebo profile.
As other social-networking site users become more circumspect about their violent activities, the police are trying to keep up. Arrests are now made once individuals are identified posing on the internet with weapons. Professor Pitts says the police are quickly realising the value of social-networking sites as a means of gathering intelligence. They “are beginning to understand that in order to work effectively and to protect young people they need to be there on the ’net. Sometimes they take these pictures round to the parent’s house and show them to them: ‘You thought your son was going down the youth club but this is what is really going on, we want you to talk to him.’”
Whether it’s the police who intervene in online gang activity, or support groups facilitated by sites such as Bebo, it’s clear that something needs to be done. Providing easier access to help for those who want it and intercepting young people who are merely dabbling with gang culture are clearly areas where social-networking sites can contribute to the social good.
“In terms of where young people’s thinking is, where their heads are, a lot of it is there, online,” says Professor Pitts. “That’s where, if we want to make a difference, I guess we need to be.”