When Social Media Fuels Gang Violence
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And these days, social media - Twitter, Facebook - has become another way gang members can threaten each other. It's called cyber banging, and it's led to fights and even death. Now some social workers and universities are trying to use technology to stop it. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: One of the havens in Chicago for young people in gangs and those trying to get out of them is run by Metro Chicago YMCA's Youth Safety Program. That's where 17-year-old Jaime has logged onto one of the computers in a meeting room.
JAIME: These are gang pages.
CORLEY: A gang member for two years, Jaime is trying to leave the group and NPR agreed to use only his first name for his safety. He clicks on a video in his Facebook newsfeed.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I live in Chicago. You know, that's how this [expletive] goes downtown. And you know...
CORLEY: As the video rolls on, there's lots of cursing as a group of young men mug for the camera, flashing gang signs and guns. Jaime says it's one of many so-called gang pages online.
JAIME: Social media's just endorsement, that's all - to endorse where you come from, what gang you are in.
CORLEY: He points to one of the men who pushed his way to the front of the video for just a moment.
JAIME: He got killed a week after - the rival gang - it was crazy. And now people actually make pictures making fun of him.
CORLEY: He says there will be retaliation over that disrespect. Using social media to gang bang reaches across all platforms. There is still rancor in some Chicago neighborhoods over a long-running feud on Twitter between Chicago rappers Chief Keef and Little JoJo, both associated with rival gangs. Three years ago, after Little JoJo issued a taunt along with his location, he was killed shortly afterwards. This year, police say cyber banging fueled the death of another Chicago rapper.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLA")
YOUNG PAPPY: (Singing) All white like I'm Mensa, I got Teezy in my swisha...
CORLEY: Shaquon Thomas was called Young Pappy. On YouTube, there have been nearly 2 million views of his song, "Killa," which glorifies gang life and violence. He was gunned down last May. Eddie Bocanegra, a co-director of the Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Program at the Y, says gang banging on social media for some is a way to get street credibility. Others that post gang raps think it's a way to make it big in the music industry, where dark and violent lyrics - so-called drill music - sells. But Bocanegra says the potential for violence spurred by social media extends even to those not in gangs.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: This kid could simply say, hey, I was in class today and my - the girl next to me was really cute. Her name is so-and-so. I thought she was fine. And, well, this girl has a brother who is in the street who is really already has a reputation of being violent or has a boyfriend, and he sees that post. Now it's like, hey, why you making these comments about my girl? Why you making comments about my sister? And it just escalates.
CORLEY: Chicago police do monitor social media sites, and they've been able to work with school social workers to prevent some violence from occurring. Desmond Patton, a professor of social work at Columbia University, says he and fellow researchers want to take those efforts a step further.
DESMOND PATTON: One idea is that if we can decode the language, then perhaps we can send triggers to social workers, violence workers who are embedded in these neighborhoods already, so that they can utilize the strategies they already have to reach out to youth before the post becomes an injury or a homicide.
CORLEY: Patton conducted what he calls an Internet banging study, interviewing current or former gang members between the ages of 14 to 24 years old in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. He asked them what they see on social media, how they use it and how they believe it connects to violence in the neighborhood.
PATTON: Under what conditions are they responding to situations and posts online that they believe to be threatening.
CORLEY: One of the scientists working with Patton to create a cyber banging gauge is Henry Lieberman, a visiting professor at MIT's Media Laboratory. He plans to devise an algorithm to understand content on social media and how words turn to violence.
HENRY LIEBERMAN: And so you want to be able to recognize patterns like that, and then you can suggest to people to try to do things that de-escalate the situation.
CORLEY: Meantime, Professor Patton says there is much more to come, including more interviews and scientific testing, and the quest to use social media that's so essential to young people to curb gang violence. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.