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Terms and conditions: a UK drill story – a case study for regulation?

Large group of people dancing in a crowded, darkened room.

YouTube has released its Brian Hill-directed documentary unpicking a music genre often linked to violence and knife-crime in the UK. Catch22’s Campaigns and Media Manager Josie Cochrane attended the premiere at Youtube HQ, London where a panel discussed the issues raised.

Terms and Conditions: A UK Drill Story explains why the controversial genre is so popular, what it’s like to be working in the industry and the impact of violence on families and communities.

The documentary brings together the story of drill via rappers, police officers, community leaders and lawyers, and mothers who have lost sons to violence — who all discuss drill music and knife crime and whether the links between the two are real or fanned by negative media coverage.

Drill – like grime and rap – is the next round of music resonating with young people. It is produced by some of the most talented and artistic individuals in London today. It’s a creative outlet for young people, and it enables hugely successful careers for some.

But the genre has gained notoriety in the media for the worst music and videos being linked, even predicting, specific knife crime incidents in London. The personas in these videos – and the references to gangs, real post codes, and real violent attacks – can look like a glamorisation of violence on London’s streets.

Without an understanding of the context though, blanket criticism and blame is naïve and removes the broader social determinants of youth violence. Young people are entitled to their freedom of expression to tell the stories of what they are witnessing. And there is not enough research on the relationship between online and offline behaviour to assume that this form of creative expression is a cause of further violence on our streets.

At the documentary premiere, Riki Bleau, founder and co-president of record label Since ’93, said:

“Art is art, freedom of speech is freedom of speech, crime is crime – what we must not do is blur them into one. If someone is inciting violence or someone is committing a crime, then the police should do their job. What seems to be happening is this grey area is created when your content has this kind of energy, it’s assumed its inciting violence.”

“For 25 years Jay-Z has been rapping about selling drugs but that doesn’t mean he’s out there right now selling drugs.”

The relationship between drill and youth violence is complicated, but the relationship between current affairs and art often is. The question we need to ask ourselves is why does this generation relate to it? And what else can we offer?

Regulation is on the way, with Ofcom set to be given that responsibility, according to the recent response to the Online Harms White Paper. Regulators are there to both reduce harm and protect the public.

Mr Montgomery, the narrator of the documentary, said he wants to see mental health and trauma-informed practice as a central driving force behind anything that addresses online harm. At 13 years old, after a friend of his was stabbed, he had symptoms of PTSD and flashbacks for a year. He says, had he not had the right support around him, he might have responded to that incident in the same way some of his friends did – long-term substance misuse and more violent behaviour.

Removing harmful content alone won’t address the reasons behind harmful material, he says:

“Young people need good people around them to be able to process the trauma they’re seeing around them – drill isn’t always doing that in a harmful way – it is often reflecting the trauma young people are seeing around them.”

Franklyn Addo, Youth Work Team Leader for Redthread, added that programmes like The Social Switch Project, which is training frontline professionals to talk about social media content, understand this. He doesn’t want to see “blanket and culturally insensitive censorship.” He references people looking at the headlines too often, not understanding what is being said and tarnishing all content with the same brush.

Riki Bleau adds:

“We need people with a true understanding of the context of what these experiences are – it’s too easy to say ‘that’s bad and that’s bad, get rid of it all’ – there have got to be people who can give a balanced experience on what content means.

“It’s really not that difficult to differentiate between what is a crime and what isn’t.”

Katie O’Donovan, Google UK’s Policy Lead adds:

“No one wants to push one button and the exact opposite happens. More collaboration is needed between people creating the content, the police at the hard-line of the illegal stuff, and the people in the middle concerned about content which might not be illegal but is still really worrying.”

A case study for regulation?

Terms and Conditions: A UK Drill Story doesn’t offer a clear solution, but it does highlight that when we’re talking about online regulation and the responsibility of platforms like YouTube, drill music is a phenomenal example of the complexities of this issue.

Too much regulation and we will drive this content further underground. Not enough regulation, and we’ll ignore a problem that is only growing. And regulation done in isolation, by people who have no concept of life on London estates or of the role creative content plays in processing our own lives, serves no one.

The next stage of developing regulation for online harm must involve people on the frontline – those supporting young people, representing young people, and of course young people themselves, must be a part of this process.