Christopher J. Przemieniecki, PhD
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Street gangs have long been a problem for communities in the United States. Gangs create fear, terrorize neighborhoods, contribute to drug and sex trafficking problem, and recruit youth into crime and violence. While street gangs have been around since the 1800s, the significance of the gang problem did not attract the attention of law enforcement until the late 1970s. By the 1980s and 1990s, places like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Detroit and St. Louis were experiencing gang violence at alarming rates. According to the National Gang Center (2015), gang membership has steadily risen since the 1970s, declined in the early 2000s and then slowly increased several years later. Recent reports suggest that gang membership is topping 1 million and that there are over 300,000 gangs across the U.S. (National Gang Center, 2015; Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015).
Traditionally, street gangs recruit new members through word-of-mouth, at school, or convince those who live in a gang-infested neighborhood to join for protection or for social support. However, gangs are increasingly utilizing social media platforms to promote themselves. Street gangs use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, SnapChat and many other social networking platforms to communicate and proliferate the gang. While research has not supported the premise that gangs are using online sources to recruit new members (Hesse, Przemieniecki, & Carter, 2016), news media outlets continue to feature stories on how gangs recruit online. Story headlines such as “Gangs Turn to Social Networking Sites to Recruit” (Vazquez, 2008) and “Gangs Go to Social Media to Push Brand and Recruit” (Kerr, 2016) give the public a pause for concern. Instead, what gangs are doing online is sharing their exploits, bragging, enticing new members to join, and taunting or disrespecting rival gangs. For example, gang members post pictures of their guns, drugs, and money. They post videos, rap about their exploits and even challenge rival gangs. These online behaviors can result in gangs taking violence to the streets. For gangs, it is about making an impression on young kids who might consider joining the gang.
So, which gang is online the most? Décary-Hétu and Morselli (2011) analyzed gang presence on two popular social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter, over a two-year period. The gangs with the most “followers” on Facebook are the Hells Angels which boasted a 65% increase on Facebook from 2010 to 2011, followed by the Crips (a 15% increase) and the Bloods (a 43% increase). Similarly, Twitter’s top gangs are the Bloods, Hells Angels, and the Latin Kings (Décary-Hétu & Morselli, 2011). Currently, Przemieniecki and Leitz (2016) are examining online gang presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Their initial results show a dramatic increase of gang presence on those social media sites, including such street gangs as the Sureños, Norteños, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, MS-13, 18th Street and United Blood Nation.
As the presence of gangs increases online, so does the violence off-line (i.e., on the streets). One contributor to gang violence on the streets is how rival gangs banter back-and-forth on social media sites. For example, on Twitter and Facebook, gangs will disrespect each other with negative comments and on YouTube they will make threatening videos. In the summer of 2015 in Los Angeles, a 27-year old member of the Rollin’ 100 Crips was killed as the result of an online fight. The Rollin’ Crips then challenged rival gangs and took to Twitter and Instagram calling for the killing of innocent people just to see which gang is the toughest. The gangs referred to it as #100days100Nights (Santa Cruz, Mather, & Panzar, 2015). Fortunately, the gangs have not succeeded in completing this task, but several innocent people were shot, one was killed, and violent crimes have risen in parts of Los Angeles. In Chicago, aspiring rapper Lil Jojo (Joseph Coleman), a member of the Gangster Disciples Brick Squad made many disparaging comments about their rival gang Lamron Black Disciples and rapper Chief Keef (Keith Cozart). It is believed that the online feud between the two rap artists and their gangs resulted in the death of Lil Jojo (Gorner, 2012).
The Police are Fighting Back
As gangs use social media to glamorize, glorify, and share their exploits about gang lifestyle, law enforcement is gathering valuable evidence to arrest and prosecute their members for various crimes. For example, in 2012, a Bronx gang bragged about its exploits on Instagram and YouTube, but the police quickly arrested its members (Conley, 2012). More recently, the NYPD monitored another Bronx gang which had posted threatening pictures, comments, and videos against other rival gangs. After the gang discussed and displayed their use of guns and violence on Facebook, the NYPD made multiple arrests (Tracy, 2015).
Besides tracking gangs using such traditional online methods as “following” or “friending” a gang member, the Chicago PD has implemented a program called social network analysis (SNA) (Buntin, 2013). Created by gang expert Andrew Papachristos, SNA provides law enforcement the ability “to identify the structures of street groups using connections contained within police records of arrests, field stops, and similar data” (National Network for Safe Communities, 2016). Papachristos noted that most gang members know each other. Thus, by monitoring active gang members and their associates, SNA can help map those relationships giving law enforcement critical information to combat the gang problem or possibly prevent one from happening. Law enforcement also utilizes data collected by the SecDev Foundation in Canada. SecDev is a security and development “think-do tank” that addresses digital safety, open intelligence, and violence prevention and reduction ideas. SecDev has been monitoring drug cartels and U.S. street gangs and shares the latest trends and information with local, state, and federal agencies (The SecDev Foundation, 2016).
Despite that some gang members’ social media accounts are listed as private, law enforcement officials are still able to decipher the slang, gang codes and gather self-incriminating evidence in order to arrest and prosecute gang members. As social media platforms get more sophisticated, gangs will continue to adapt and use these sites in order to promote the gang. But, law enforcement officials are right there keeping a close watch on the gang. With all that is posted by gangs on social media and the belief that it is “cool,” nothing is farther from the truth—the gang lifestyle online or off-line is dangerous and destructive.
Décary-Hétu, D. & Morselli, C. (2011). Gang presence in social network sites. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 5, 876–890.
Hesse, M.L., Przemieniecki, C.J., & Smith, C.F. (2016). Gangs. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publications.
Przemieniecki, C.J. & Leitz, A. (2016). The growing presence of gangs on social media sites. Manuscript in preparation.
Pyrooz, D.C. & Sweeten, G. (2015). Gang membership between ages 5 and 17 years in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56, 414-419.