Chicago is a very violent city where young people are shooting each other almost every day on the streets.
In today’s world of the Internet, many of those who brandish guns and threaten their enemies do it openly on the Internet for a reason.
“I ain’t going to lie,” one gang banger told Ben Austen, who wrote an article in Wired on how social media is helping fuel gang wars. “On my Facebook page, I’m on there showing my guns off. It’s how you advertise yourself.”
Incredibly, there are many on the streets today who think the same thing. Like any one of us who want to tell our Facebook friends all about our lives, those in gangs do likewise, they openly show the world their guns, their colors and their symbols. As Austen wrote in the article, the gang banger promoting himself on Facebook is both endangering his life and protecting it.
“I’m my own police. Someone says something to me on Facebook, I don’t even write a word. The only thing I do is post my 30-popper, my big banger.”
In the article “Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago,” Austen writes that there are basic rules of the street for Facebook. First, don’t make friend requests to rivals or accept any from someone you do not know. Second, borrow someone else’s phone when possible to browse the site, and third, don’t quit social media entirely, you need to know who’s making threats.
The rise in gun violence in this city is a result of the fragmentation of the gangs on its streets. In our review of the book on gangs, “The Insane Chicago Way,” author John Hagedorn wrote how black gangs were once organized into supergangs, but after public housing projects like Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Holmes were torn down, the gangs were scattered throughout the city. This helped fuel the violence as gangs fought over new territory.
There are now an estimated 70,000 members in gangs in Chicago, spread out among 850 cliques, according to Wired, with many of these groupings formed around a couple of street corners or a school or park.
And gang violence is now openly advertised and promoted online, helping further fuel the violence. Every day on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, you can find teens flashing gang signs, showing off guns and other paraphernalia.
Whereas gangs before had ties to organized criminal structures that instilled some form of discipline, today’s gangs are without hierarchical structure and thus discipline.
Which makes it ideal for law enforcement to follow closely.
“Similarly, the majority of the violence isn’t strategic but results instead from petty exchanges,” Austen writes. “Young people in embattled Chicago neighborhoods are scared and heavily armed – police seize more guns than the NYPD and LAPD combined, an average of 130 illegal firearms each week.”
According to the author, the Chicago Police Department, which now patrols social media, estimates that up to 80 percent of all school disturbances result from online exchanges.
The police also look for inflammatory comments from gangs on specific dates, such as the birthday of a murdered gang member or the anniversary of a homicide. They use this information about the hundreds of cliques operating in the city, cataloging the members, affiliations and geographic boundaries, Austen writes.
The police routinely use social media to identify any involved in a crime, but there are pros and cons to this, said leading web security expert Lori Andrews.
“Thieves have been identified when they’ve posted photos of themselves with stolen goods,” she told Chicago News. “A female criminal had fled the jurisdiction to evade arrest. Cops monitored her high school reunion’s Facebook page and snagged her when she came back to town to party.”
But social media evidence has also been improperly used by police and prosecutors – such as Myspace and Facebook photos of people purportedly wearing gang colors or making gang signs to prove that they were involved in gang activity.
“But should the justice system really make that leap?” said Andrews, who teaches at Kent College of Law in Chicago. “A junior high student who was being bullied might post those kinds of photos to trick others into thinking he was tough.”
One cop told Austen that they use information on gang members that they took from social media to “rattle them” so they put their guns down.
This is a questionable tactic, however, when gang members want the world to see who they are and what they represent.