We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.
There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.
And the police are watching:
Gang enforcement officers in Chicago started looking closely at social media sites about three years ago, after learning that high school students were filming fights in the hallways and alcoves of their schools and posting the videos online. Boudreau tells me that they began to hear about fight videos going on YouTube during the day, and then they would often see a related shooting later in the afternoon. In the department’s deployment operations center, the other unit in the force that regularly monitors social media activity, officers first took notice when they read in the newspaper about a West Side gang member who was using the Internet to find out about enemies being released from prison. But “virtual policing” became a priority only after kids aligned with local cliques started calling each other out in rap videos…
Police and other experts say the ad hoc, emotional nature of street violence today might actually present an opportunity. Repairing big rifts between warring criminal enterprises is really hard; defusing minor beefs and giving kids skills to regulate their socio-emotional behavior is highly labor-intensive but effective. And the public nature of social media gives police and advocacy groups some warning about trouble before it starts. For a long time, criminal-justice experts have talked about predictive policing—the idea that you can use big data to sniff out crimes before they happen, conjuring up an ethically troublesome future like the one depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. But in Chicago and other big cities, police are finding it’s much easier than that. Give people social media and they’ll tell you what they’re about to do.
And this activity on social media helps fuel a social network approach to examining gangs.