Originating from the streets of Chicago, drill music is a creative output of inner-city Black youths. It is defined by real life experiences and perspectives, and whilst drill rappers often document gang-related conflict and anti-establishment narratives in their lyrics and music videos, the rap genre is a crucial mouthpiece of artistic and cultural expression. However, London’s police force—the Metropolitan Police, or the Met—have argued that the genre is partly responsible for the rise in knife crime across the UK’s capital, and have sought to remove drill music from online platforms based on the mistaken, and frankly racist, belief that it is not creative expression but a witness statement to criminal activity.
It is concerning, therefore, that in 2018 streaming platform YouTube started an “enhanced partnership” with the Met, which has since facilitated a pervasive system of content moderation for drill rappers in the UK. This partnership of state and corporate power has enabled the Met to advance their previous efforts to censor drill music, most notably since 2015 when the force launched Operation Domain to monitor “videos that incite violence” on YouTube. In June 2019, Operation Domain was replaced by Project Alpha, which involves police officers from gang units operating a database of 34 different categories, including drill music videos, and monitoring sites for intelligence about criminal activity. According to Vice, 1,006 rap videos have been included on the database since 2020 and a heavily redacted Met document notes that Project Alpha aimed to carry out “systematic monitoring or profiling on a large scale,” with men aged between 15 to 21 the primary focus.
YouTube’s partnership with London’s police includes giving Project Alpha officers “trusted flagger” status to “achieve a more effective and efficient process for the removal of online content”—which the Met has called “a global first for law enforcement.” When sites cooperate with government agencies in these systems of content moderation, it leaves the platform inherently biased in favor of the government’s positions and gives law enforcement outsized influence to control public dialogue, suppress dissent, and blunt social movements. It also pressures platforms to moderate speech they may not otherwise have chosen to moderate.
Since November 2016, the Met made 579 referrals for the removal of “potentially harmful content” from social media platforms and 522 of these were removed, predominantly from YouTube. More specifically, in 2021 the Met referred 510 music videos to YouTube for removal and the platform removed 96.7%, and a report from the New York Times notes that YouTube removed 319 videos in 2020 following requests from the police force. At the same time, popular YouTube channels have advised artists to censor content that could be deemed offensive to avoid potential removal once the video goes live.
The Met has refuted accusations that Project Alpha suppresses freedom of expression. But the collaboration with YouTube has facilitated a punitive system of censorship that contravenes data protection, privacy, and free expression rights. And it’s not the first of its kind. In 2012, Operation New Hampshire was established by Newham Council to “examine” more than 500 music videos and successfully secure the removal of 76 from YouTube because of their “explicit use of threats.” Newham Council created a special unit to monitor the videos that it believed could “recruit new gang members” and when asked what the benefits of such a monitoring system are, they replied that “the successful outcome of removal of the videos is self-evident.”
Law enforcement have a history of linking music to violence and their “street illiteracy” exacerbates the idea that drill music depicts real-life actions that artists have seen or done, rather than an artistic expression communicated through culturally-specific language that police are seldom equipped to decode. Similar trends are also evident in countries like the United States where New York City mayor Eric Adams recently blamed drill for violent crime in the city and called for the removal of drill videos from social media. As such, the flags raised by the police to social platforms are completely one-sided, rather than with experts supporting both sides. Social media platforms like YouTube should take more effective voluntary actions against partnering with law enforcement and ensure that all individuals can share content online without their voices being censored by government authorities.