How gang violence can start on social media

Gang members also tend to behave online just like they do offline

By Ashley Morris

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Like businesses and brands, gangs often use social media to promote their image.

In a local music video filmed in backyards, a front porch and the roof of a downtown parking garage, the high quality production shows teens flashing guns, gang signs and rhyming about gang culture.

Wikimedia Image

There are dozens of other videos just like it from around Wilmington. Many feature messages about violence.

"Ride through your block, shoot up your house," chants a member of an emerging local group the 1300 Boyz in a music video.

In the video, some teens pile onto the top of a sedan. As it rolls by, a boy on top of the trunk points his fingers like a gun and fires at the camera. That teen, Shane Simpson, a 16-year-old Hoggard High School student, died from gunfire in December off Castle Street. Four other teens, some appearing in the same video, were injured in the shooting.

National expert on violence and social media David Pyrooz said the video is not unique in that he estimates hundreds of videos like it exist across the country. 

"YouTube is like this cottage industry for gang-related activity," said Pyrooz, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Pyrooz conducted a survey in five major cities in 2013 to gather information on how people involved in gangs interact online. 

His study found gangs used social media as much, if not more, than their non-gang counterparts. For the research, more than 500 individuals, most active or former gang members were interviewed.

Gang members also tend to behave online just like they do offline, he said. 

And rather than actually perform illegal activities online, though that does occur, Pyrooz said gang members mostly go online to post photos and videos that perpetuate their tough image.

"When people are playing with guns on a social network, showing (gang) signs, we monitor that type of stuff, and get a gauge and just to see if we think something is about to happen," said Marcus McAllister with the Cure Violence organization in Chicago. The organization provides resources in neighborhoods all over the world where people, usually former gang members and criminals, work as violence interrupters and mediators along with outreach workers. 

McAllister said violence interrupters monitor social media in an attempt to stop violence. Many times, gang members want to look tough on social media, flashing their guns, drugs and money. Mediators are constantly looking for phrases and posts that might incite violence or retaliation.

"People have died and been killed (after posts) so you cant take this stuff lightly," McAllister said. "But on the flip side, we can't label everyone that's posting stuff as a threat and point the finger at everybody that's doing it. Some people just do it because its fun and at the end of the day it has nothing attached to it." 

Deputy Chief Mitch Cunningham with the Wilmington Police Department said gangs can be deliberate on social media, taunting rivals and inciting violence.

"If there is an emerging conflict on social media, we strategize to react quickly and stop further violence from occurring as quickly as possible," Cunningham said. 

There have been conflicts in the past in Wilmington that did not necessarily happen because of something posted on social media, but the WPD's gang analyst Robin Pascoe said the department has seen violent events happen after inflammatory posts. To law enforcement officials, social media posts, YouTube videos and comments can become a piece to a larger puzzle after violence.

Timothy Washington, an employee with Man Up!, a violence reduction program with Cure Violence in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he has seen a fatality result from social media taunting between gangs. 

Someone posted a video of one group attacking another, then retaliation led to more violence, Washington said. 

The Showtime series Darknet recently aired an episode about the incident. The tragedy started with words, which spread to taunting on social media. That led to a stabbing and then a shooting left a man dead, Washington said. 

"I would describe it as like a ping-pong effect," he said. 

Washington is also trying to warn teens in his Brooklyn neighborhood of the dangers of social media. 

He said a person's involvement in a group may be limited or social, but once other people and law enforcement agencies see someone associating with a group online, they assume the person is heavily involved, Washington said.  

"Once you start hanging out with a group and you're rhyming, whoever is in that video with you, you are now accountable for," he said. "Whoever had beefs with people in that video, you are now accountable for."

Copyright 2016 the Star-News 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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