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When Social Media Fuels Gang Violence

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have become an everyday part of life for many young people — and increasingly, the way some, including rival gang members, threaten each other.

The practice is called "cyber banging," and it's often led to fights and even death.

Jaime, 17, has been in a gang for two years and is trying to leave. NPR agreed to use only his first name for his safety. Logging onto a computer at the YMCA of Metro Chicago, he clicks on a video in his Facebook feed. It shows a group of young men mugging for the camera, flashing gang signs and guns. Jaime says it's one of many so-called gang pages online.

"Social media is just endorsement, that's all," he says. "To endorse where you come from, what gang you are in."

He points to one of the men who pushed his way to the front of the video for a just a moment. "He got killed a week after [by] the rival gang. It was crazy, and now people actually make pictures making fun of him," Jaime says.

He says there will be retaliation over that disrespect. Using social media to gang bang reaches across all platforms. There is still rancor in some Chicago neighborhoods over a long-running feud on Twitter between Chicago rappers Chief Keef and Lil JoJo, both associated with rival gangs. Three years ago, shortly after Lil JoJo issued a taunt along with his location, he was killed.

This year, police say cyber banging fueled the death of another Chicago rapper.

Social media is just endorsement, that's all. To endorse where you come from, what gang you are in.

Shaquon Thomas was called Young Pappy. On YouTube, there have been nearly 2 million views of his song "Killa," which glorifies gang life and violence. He was gunned down in May.

Eddie Bocanegra, a co-director of Metro Chicago YMCA's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program, says gang banging on social media for some is a way to get street credibility. Others that post gang raps think it's a way to make it big in the music industry, where dark and violent lyrics — so-called "drill music" — sells. But Bocanegra says the potential for violence spurred by social media extends even to those not in gangs.

"This kid could simply say, 'Hey, I was in class today, and the girl next to me was really cute. Her name is so and so. I thought she was fine,' " he says. "Well, this girl has a brother who is in the street who really already has a reputation of being violent or has a boyfriend, and he sees that post. Now it's like, 'Hey, why you making comments about my girl?' 'Why you making comments about my sister?' And it just escalates."

Chicago police do monitor social media sites, and they've been able to work with school social workers to prevent some violence from occurring. Desmond Patton, a professor of social work at Columbia University, says he and fellow researchers want to take those efforts a step further.

"One idea is that if we can decode the language, then perhaps we can send triggers to social workers, violence workers who are embedded in these neighborhoods already, so that they can utilize the strategies they already have to reach out to youth before the post becomes an injury or homicide," Patton says.

Patton conducted what he calls an "Internet banging study." He interviewed current or former gang members between the ages of 14 and 24 in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. He asked them what they see on social media, how they use it, how they believe it connects to violence in the neighborhood, and, he says, "under what conditions are they responding to situations and posts online that they believe to be threatening."

One of the scientists working with Patton to create a cyber banging gauge is Henry Lieberman, a visiting professor at MIT's Media Lab. He plans to devise an algorithm to understand content on social media and how words turn to violence.

"You want to be able to recognize patterns like that and then you can suggest to people to try to do things that de-escalate the situation," Lieberman says.

Meantime, Patton says there is much more to come, including more interviews and scientific testing, in the quest to use social media that's so essential to young people to curb gang violence.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.