Crime & Justice

Gang members use social media to organize, taunt — and represent

Does a period in a text message mean something different from one on paper?
Does a period in a text message mean something different from one on paper?

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Hanging out on street corners for gang members has moved to hanging out on Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms - at least some of the time - academics and law enforcement officials said Wednesday at the L.A. gang violence conference.

What’s different between how a business may use Pinterest or you may keep your social media profiles is the stakes are higher for gang memers, said Dr. Desmond Patton, professor of social work at the University of Michigan. He said the potential for violence is higher because of the size of the audience.

“If I make fun of you, if I make a comment that you may typically brush off in a personal interaction,” Patton said. “It becomes a bigger problem in social media.”

Patton researches how gang members use social media and the Internet to promote their gang, to fight with rivals, and to organize. He got started a couple of years ago when Twitter messages between two rap artists in Chicago flamed gang tensions between two rival gangs the rappers belonged to.

After months of escalating arguments and insults on Twitter, one of the rappers tweeted out where he was hanging out. Within hours, he was murdered, Patton said.

“Since then, individuals that have been connected to these two gangs have been referencing this particular interaction as part of their gang beef for the past two years,” he said.

Gang members taunt each other on social media by posting physical fights recorded on video and posted to YouTube or Twitter.

On social media, it’s difficult to determine who is really in a gang, he said. Young adults post pictures of themselves wearing gang colors or posing with guns or drugs, but may not affiliate with a particular gang.

“When you are in a violent community, your identity  - as a person who can protect themselves, as a person with street cred, as a person who is tough  - is important offline and becomes even more important online,” he said.

There are some characteristics of “Internet-banging” – as Patton calls it – that are similar to what graffiti or tagging walls seeks to do, said Detective Sean Magee, a gang expert with the Long Beach Police Department.

“It’s kind of the same concept as social media where you are promoting the gang and yourself for the fame and notoriety,” he said.