Tweets and Threats: Gangs Find New Home on the Net

Sharon Cohen, AP, January 11, 2014

The video is riddled with menace and swagger: Reputed gang members in Chicago point their guns directly at the camera. A bare-chested young man brandishes an assault weapon. They flash hand signals, dance and, led by a rapper, taunt their rivals as he chants:

“Toe tag DOA. That’s for being in my way . . . Killing til my heart swell . . . Guaranteed there’s going to be all hell.”

Thousands watch on YouTube. Among them: the Chicago police, who quickly identify two of those in the video as felons who are prohibited from being around guns. Both are later taken into custody.

As social media has increasingly become part of daily life, both gangs and law enforcement are trying to capitalize on the reach of this new digital world–and both, in their own ways, are succeeding.

Social media has exploded among street gangs who exploit it–often brazenly–to brag, conspire and incite violence. They’re turning to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to flaunt guns and wads of cash, threaten rivals, intimidate informants and in a small number of cases, sell weapons, drugs–even plot murder.

“What’s taking place online is what’s taking place in the streets,” says David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University who has studied gangs and social media in five big cities. “The Internet does more for a gang’s brand or a gang member’s identity than word-of-mouth could ever do. It really gives the gang a wide platform to promote their reputations. They can brag about women, drugs, fighting . . . and instead of boasting to five gang members on a street corner, they can go online and it essentially goes viral. It’s like this electronic graffiti wall that never gets deleted.”

On the crime-fighting side, “cyberbanging” or “Internet banging”–a phrase used by Desmond Patton, a University of Michigan researcher, to describe this activity–is transforming how police and prosecutors pursue gangs. Along with traditional investigative techniques, police monitor gangs online–sometimes communicating with them using aliases–and track their activities and rivalries, looking for ways to short-circuit potential flare-ups.

It’s a formidable task: There are millions of images and words, idle boasts mixed in with real threats and an ever-changing social media landscape. Myspace has given way to Facebook and Twitter, but gangs also are using Instagram, Snapchat, Kik and Chirp–different ways of sharing photos, video, audio and words, sometimes through smartphones or pagers.

{snip}

It’s not just changing styles, but the language itself that can pose obstacles. Police often have to decipher street talk, which varies according to gang and city. In Chicago, for instance, a gun may be a thumper or a cannon. In Houston, a burner, chopper, pump or gat. In New York, a flamingo, drum set, clickety, biscuit, shotty, rachet or ratty.

That slang played a significant role last year for New York police and prosecutors. They pursued a digital trail of messages on Facebook and Twitter, along with jailhouse phone calls, to crack down on three notorious East Harlem gangs tied to gun trafficking, more than 30 shootings and at least three murders.

After 63 reputed gang members were indicted, authorities revealed they’d collected hundreds of social media postings to help build their case. {snip}

{snip}

{snip} By the start of 2014, 53 of the 63 charged had pleaded guilty. And in November, then New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly offered an endorsement: Hailing a 50 percent drop in homicides among those 13 to 21 since 2012, Kelly said a new strategy “including attention to the new battleground of social media has resulted in lives being saved in New York City, mostly minority young men.”

{snip}

In many cases, gangs do little to hide their identities, even though they know they’re leaving an electronic fingerprint for police.

“I guess the need for recognition and street cred must outweigh the potential for being arrested and charged,” Roti says. “They don’t seem to be that worried. They may feel they can hide in numbers. There are millions of pictures and posts. (Their attitude is) `I’ll take my chances.'”

{snip}

Eric Vento, a Houston police officer and gang specialist, says he sometimes creates aliases to befriend gang members online.

“You have to build your persona,” he says. “That comes through countless, tedious hours of posting comments. You have to get to be friends with these people. You have to let them into your fake world. You have to build their trust. Only then, will they let you in. Until that time, you’re there twiddling your thumbs.”

{snip}

Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.