Despite a myriad of preventative strategies ranging from increased police presence to community-based youth interventions, gang membership has continued to rise in the United States. This is an obvious concern as gangs and gang-related activities contribute significantly to violent crime rates (accounting for 48% of the total crime rate). While some attempts have indeed proved to be successful in curbing gang activities and membership in certain areas, the nature of gangs and their activities are ever-changing, posing new challenges for law enforcement and public health officials.
One example of the changing nature of gangs is the recent adoption of social media platforms such as MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook by younger gang members familiar with social media to exchange insults, violent threats, and challenges in real time that often escalate into actual violent crimes being committed, including homicides. This is a relatively new but increasingly recognized phenomenon that is now being labeled as “internet banging.” Different definitions exist, but all include several central themes including:
- promotion of gang affiliation and/or communication of interest in gang activity
- achievement of status and notoriety by reporting participation in a violent act or communicating an impending threat
- sharing information about rival gangs or networking with other gang members in different locations
Many gangs typically recruit heavily from area youth, who also happen to be more heavy and experienced users of social media platforms. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter offer a convenient public forum that did not exist before, allowing a large number of people to see in real-time information that they can respond to instantly. Additionally, most social media platforms feature some sort of “tagging” or location indicating feature showing where an individual is at any particular time or place; this creates an easy avenue for retaliation and increased opportunities for violent confrontations. Social media sites also function as a tool through which gangs are becoming more organized and coordinated than ever, as they provide an easy mechanism for recruiting, planning, and sharing of intelligence on rivals.
It is still unclear if the adoption of social media by gangs has led to a definitive increase in gang-related violent crime rates, but law enforcement officials and police have recognized the dangerous potential it can have. As such, they are now devoting more and more resources to online monitoring and surveillance of gang-affiliated pages and accounts, both in an effort to prevent incidents from occurring and as evidence for crimes that have already occurred.
Public health and other organizations looking to curb gang violence and helping youth have taken notice of the potential social media use has in prevention as well. In New York, the Perfect Peace Ministry Youth Outreach group has volunteers monitoring the social media usage of over 4,000 at risk teens to stop violent incidents before they start, with staff members on-call that can be dispatched quickly to “tweeters”, and act as mediators. So while social media platforms may be being co-opted for unintended and harmful purposes by gangs, there is great potential for them to be adapted as preventative tools as well.
1. Patton, D.U., Eschmann, R.D., & Butler, D.A. (2013). Internet banging: New trends in social media, gang violence, masculinity, and hip hop. Computers in Human Behavior, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.035.
2. Watkins, T. (2010). Gang use of Twitter, Facebook on the rise. Available online http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/02/gangs-use-of-twitter-facebook_n_445551.html
3. Weischelbaum, S. (2010). Gangs in New York talk Twitter: Use tweets to trash-talk rivals, plan fights. Available online http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/gangs-new-york-talk-twitter-tweets-trash-talk-rivals-plan-fights-article-1.414083