The gang problem in the United States is characterized by delinquency and violence: self-reported delinquency is much higher for gang members than for other youths; gang-related killings account for around 12 percent of annual homicides. John Hagedorn defines a gang as a group of individuals socialized by non-conventional institutions, the street or prisons, but our understanding of this socialization need not be confined to physical interactions: socialization of the street now happens online. Over 66% of fourth to ninth graders can access the internet from their bedroom. As of 2015, nearly a quarter of teens report being online “almost constantly.” Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are specifically popular among adolescents.
Gang members too have social media accounts, and on them, we can see classic illustrations of group processes -- efforts to earn or maintain status, avoid ridicule, and gain acceptance are all part of what Desmond Patton calls “internet banging,” using social media to brag, initiate threats and dares. One study found that 74% of gang members who use the internet report using social media to show or gain respect for their gang. With social media comes a large amount of “unstructured and unsupervised peer socialization,” socialization that can be a detriment to intervention strategies for delinquent youths.
These musings on the internet are not detached from real life consequences. On more than one occasion, gang members have gotten shot because of what they said on social media sites. In 2012, Lil JoJo, a member of the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, was shot to death on the back of a friend’s bicycle shortly after Tweeting his location. The day before she was gunned down, Gakirah “Lil Snoop” Barnes Tweeted, “I Dne seen 2 many of my niggaz n a casket…In da end we DIE.” Social media, personal interactions, and intergroup conflict are all entwined, and as the ubiquity of social media rises, so too does the importance of understanding and using social media for social change.
Of the popular social media sites, Twitter offers specifically useful data. Users are asked one simple question: “What’s happening?” and are allowed to answer in under 140 characters. Their updates, called Tweets, are, in essence, real-time micro-news. Recently, researchers have been able to leverage this data to make predictions about future events, citing potential uses in responding to storms, fires, traffic jams, riots, and earthquakes. But it need not stop there. According to researchers at the University of Tokyo, Twitter data can be used to predict any sort of event that has the following three properties: it affects many users; it influences daily life enough for people to Tweet about it; and it takes place spatially and/or temporally. Possibly, Twitter could be used as a social sensor to understand, and perhaps predict, gang conflicts.
However, there is little research on how social media is used to fuel gang mentality and behaviors. The geographic location of Tweets has been used to estimate the physical boundaries between rival gangs in Los Angeles. Desmond Patton takes a look at the Twitter profiles of Detroit gang members and notes that there are three common themes in the content: arguing with other gang members, mourning the loss of loved ones, and discussing firearms or drugs. In the next few posts, I will look at the location, frequency, and content of Chicago gang-related Tweets by tracking certain key terms in the streaming Twitter application programming interface (API).