There?s nothing social about posing with knives and axes

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

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

?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.?

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