The role of social media in youth fights

Young people have found ways to use technology for negative purposes on the interfaces. Ten years ago, youths aged ten to 17 years old used the social media site Bebo and texting via mobile phone to arrange riots. This was well documented in a research paper by Dr Paul Reilly, University of Leicester, in 2011 (Reilly 2011, 10-11). In his research and interviews, Reilly uncovers interesting insights that show striking similarities to today’s “arranged fights”: (i) the young people involved knew each other; (ii) they arranged the riot via text messages on mobile phones and a social networking site; (iii) some youth workers thought there was a sectarian dimension to it; (iv) the young people took part because they had little else that excited them.

Interestingly, this activity a decade ago, involved groups of youngsters, compared to today’s individual “arranged fights”. Community workers from East Belfast who made these observations analysed the relationship between sectarian violence and average youth street fights motivated by individual, rather than collective, grievances (Reilly 2011, 11). All of the community workers confirmed that they were aware of incidents of street rioting that had been organised on social networking sites. Two of the North Belfast community workers stated that the violence that marred the lighting of the Christmas tree at Belfast City’ Hall in December 2009 had been organised on the social media website Bebo. A West Belfast community worker also asserted that violence between youth gangs on the Springfield Road/Shankill interface was organised via SMS text messaging and Bebo. A common theme in the interviews was that many of the participants in these street riots were friends with members of the “other” community. An East Belfast community worker reported that the so-called “recreational rioting” in their area had been organised on Bebo by youth who knew each other from the local integrated college. One interviewee stated that the violence in their areas should be characterised as anti-social behaviour rather than a return to the sectarian violence synonymous with the “Troubles”: Rioting is designed to get a “bit of craic” (fun) with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), young people self-justify their violence, defending their community, feel as if they have missed out on the conflict (East Belfast community worker 1).

Community workers from West Belfast also supported the thesis that this was antisocial behaviour rather than a return to the “Troubles”, with one community worker suggesting that some people were always likely to use social networking sites “for what it’s not meant to be used for”. However, two of the interviewees were uncomfortable with the use of the term recreational rioting, which they felt depoliticised this violence. One West Belfast community worker interviewed in Reilly’s paper noted that there was “a sectarian dimension” to social media platforms where kids who have not met each other relate to each other as the Enemy on social media. (Reilly 2011, 11).

But familiarity can sometimes take a strange turn. Those involved in the organised fights met through cross community projects. “One young man interviewed in the Irish News, a local paper noted the friendship between youth across the lines of divide” (Archer 2019). There had been some organised fights in the area (North and West Belfast) at weekends, arranged through social media. Groups of youth would communicate on social media to arrange to meet to fight. The mixed group of friends listened to music on a boombox and enjoyed each other’s company. Then, according to one, someone played “Protestant songs”. Then the other side played Irish rebel songs. Some young people had been drinking. It quickly escalated from pushing and shoving to full-blown physical fights. From that night, in the middle of February, it escalated to two fights a week and became increasingly violent (ibid). Some kids then brought along weapons for protection. At this point, youth workers and police stepped in, fearing dire consequences. Some young people were selected for a trip to South Africa to learn about deadly gang culture. Now they have more focus, having learned about choices in life, and the good and bad consequences that flow from them.

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