From Tweets to the Streets: Gang Activity Starts Online and Leads to Violence

A professor from the University of Michigan hopes to work with MIT to map his findings on gang violence and social media.

Gang feuds are no longer a product exclusively of the streets, fueled by insults that spread by word of mouth or through graffiti tags on rival territory.

For at least six years, a segment of gang activity has been starting on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, then spilling into the streets and speeding up the process in which shootings and retaliation take place, according to researchers.

Dr. Desmond Patton, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, has had his finger on the pulse of the problem and has established a possible motive: gang violence that spreads over social media may be linked to fewer employment opportunities for minorities, easy access to firearms, and is likely being shaped by male-dominated behaviors.

Patton’s research finds that there are around 33,000 gangs in the country, which are responsible for 48 percent of violent crime in most areas. “There have been a number of media reports on gang members, or former gang members engaging in what appears to be gang violence that happens through social media. There is very little research on the topic, so we wanted to get an in depth approach on it,” said Patton, who is in the process of trying to combine forces with local researchers to broaden his study on the subject. He recently applied for a grant to form a collaboration with Henry Lieberman, Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab.

The basis of that collaboration stems from a research paper published in January, titled “Internet banging: New trends in social media, gang violence, masculinity, and hip-hop,” where Patton describes how an increasing number of gang members carry guns and Twitter accounts, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

Writes Patton:

We argue [that] Internet banging is a cultural phenomenon that has evolved from increased participation with social media and represents an adaptive structuration, or new and unintended use of existing online social media … We examine Internet banging within the context of gang violence, paying close attention to the mechanisms and processes that may explain how and why Internet banging has evolved.

Patton and the study’s co-authors, Robert D. Eschmann and Dirk A. Butler, collected data from websites like, where self-proclaimed, gang members often upload videos of fights. “We identified individuals that indicated gang participation through their messaging and examined [their corresponding Twitter activity],” Patton said in a recent phone interview.

According to Patton, one thing he found particularly interesting about the behavior was that not only were people bragging about the actual acts of violence, they were also indicating where individuals were, so others could find them. “As opposed to going back to a neighborhood and trying to connect with everyone, now it’s spread online, and people can find you much quicker. The article is a process piece highlighting how these things work,” he said.

Although Boston wasn’t the focus of Patton’s initial research, the city is prone to these exact behaviors.

Patton said that in Boston, he has learned some gang-related violence is a function of failed relationships with females. “When a relationship breaks up and a female is upset, they are tweeting out info about their boyfriends that may be gang affiliated,” he said. “It is giving people very fine points and coordinates. Now people have a new map, if you will, of how to identify individuals and it’s easy. You don’t have to go through traditional challenges; you just have to go to Facebook and Twitter.” Beyond that, in many cases it’s the same old turf wars being recycled—but in a new format.

Since the start of the New Year, the Boston Police Department has responded to 25 gun-related homicides, along with 160 non-fatal shootings in the city, according to reports. That number represents a serious uptick in street violence—including a 30 percent increase in the number of overall homicides since 2012, and over an 80 percent increase of deaths by shootings—some of which are gang-related retaliations that stem from rival gangs taking to Twitter to bad mouth one another, according to city officials.

But law-enforcement officials are on social media, too. Besides sending information out, in 20o9, Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent John Daly talked about using Twitter searches to watch interactions happening in the city. “We have to be very careful, because there is a Big Brother aspect to this … but we can look at all the Tweets in Boston in real time,” he said. “We look at patterns and trends. It’s sort of an early warning system.”

Several requests sent to members of the police department to further discuss the ties between Twitter and gang-related shootings for the purposes of this article were denied.

With his first batch of work behind him, Patton said the collaboration with researchers from MIT’s Media Lab would help to target social interactions tied to gang activity even further. “One thing we are trying to do—and again we are new in this research—we want to know, does Internet banging impact the speed at which gang violence and community violence is happening?”

His initial interpretation is yes. “[Twitter] has now made it quicker to get information out there to identify people. [Gang members] have moved from the street corner to the Internet sphere,” he said.

Patton has not yet obtained the grant money to expand on his research with MIT, but if he does, interview data compiled around “Internet banging” in select cities would be filtered through detection software developed by the Lab to pinpoint more accurately the ongoing “phenomenon,” or “disease,” as he calls it. “There is a serious dearth of research that examines the use of the Internet by urban street gangs and other low-income individuals who reside in violent neighborhoods,” said Patton. “Internet banging not only poses a threat to one’s safety online but could potentially contributes to high rates of violence in urban areas.”

He would not discuss the proposed study further, at least until some of the research is conducted.

Patton said he’ll do the study, with or without the grant money, and move forward with the interviews. “We don’t know a lot about how this looks across different cities, but we know that gang activity is similar.”