CHICAGO • 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," as this activity is sometimes called, 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.
"It’s kind of like clothing — this is the style today but in two months, it won’t be," says Alex Del Toro, program director at one of the branches of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program.
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. Some messages, according to the indictment, were vengeful: "God forgives, I don’t ... somebodie gotta die," one posted on his Facebook page. "I don’t wanna talk. I want action n real guns," another said on Twitter. Others were boastful: "My team not top 2 most wanted youth gangs in Manhatten for nothin we got guns for dayss," a third posted on Facebook.
"These Facebook and Instagram postings are sometimes our most reliable evidence and they become our most reliable informants in identifying who’s in the gang," says Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. "Gang members are Instagramming pictures of themselves with guns and cash. They are communicating about where to meet before they do something related to gang activities. They brag about what they’ve done after the fact. We see that again and again and again in these cases."
And yet, Vance also says social media should be viewed skeptically — some kids brag about things that aren’t true or just want to look tough — and a Facebook post would not be reason alone to file charges.
Online messages, though, were critical in the East Harlem investigation. 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."
New York isn’t unique. In Houston, police say gang members have used social media to sell meth, marijuana and heroin and provoke shootings as initiation rites. In Daytona Beach, Fla., five kids who claimed to be in a gang brutally assaulted a teen and within hours, cell phone video of the attack was on Facebook. And in Chicago, gang warfare has migrated from the streets to cyberspace and back again — with deadly results.
Probably the most high-profile case unfolded in 2012 on the city’s South Side. It began with an online feud involving insults, gangs and two rappers, Keith Cozart, better known as Chief Keef, and Joseph ‘Lil JoJo’ Coleman. Hours after Coleman tweeted his location, he was fatally shot while riding on a bicycle. Soon after, Chief Keef’s Twitter account carried mocking comments about the death. He claimed his account had been hacked.
"We see a lot of taunting," says Nick Roti, chief of the Chicago police organized crime bureau. "There are guys standing on a street corner, they take a picture of themselves holding a gun (the message being), ‘I always stand up for my ‘hood.’ They’re basically daring someone to shoot them."
They do the reverse as well, posting videos of themselves on enemy territory, scrawling profanity on walls, then egging their rivals to come out and defend their turf.
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.’"Next Page >
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