When Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart ran an after-school violence prevention program on Chicago’s South Side a few years ago, he says he got to know a young man he calls “Tevin.”
“Over the course of a single week, Tevin posted a series of photos to Instagram that depicted him holding a large pistol in a number of private settings, including his bedroom, bathroom and living room,” Stuart wrote in a new article for the journal Social Problems.
Tevin, according to the sociologist, described the images as an effort to convey a tough identity to social media audiences: “They could see on my [Instagram profile] that I don’t even take a piss without the pole.”
But when Stuart asked Tevin where the gun came from, the young man admitted he had borrowed it, for only a short time, from a visiting cousin and that he took all the photos within minutes. Tevin even changed his clothing for each photo and posted the images on different days, giving the impression he still possessed the gun, the sociologist wrote.
Tevin’s ruse is among many shows of bravado that Stuart documented during two years of research into how young South Siders use social media in gang conflict. The sociologist says the after-school program enabled him to recruit 60 youths in five gang factions to participate in the research.
Stuart told WBEZ his key finding is that law enforcement authorities that monitor platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram do not seem to understand what they see. He said police officers, judges and probation officers “have massively overestimated the direct linkage between what someone does online and what someone does offline.”
The sociologist said there’s a popular narrative: “Young gang-associated black men are out … shooting each other due to the slightest insults on Twitter. And there’s this notion that, the kind of posturing and insulting that people did on street corners, now they’re doing it online.”
And because they’re doing it in social media and far more frequently, Stuart said, an assumption widely held in law enforcement is that there must be more violence.
“The problem with that narrative,” Stuart said, “is that it’s not grounded in any empirical research whatsoever.”
Stuart also sees “racial implications about young black men lacking impulse control and not valuing life — all the other ways we think in racialized terms about cultures of poverty and cultures of violence.”
Stuart set out to learn what was really happening in social media. He distinguished three strategies used by gang-affiliated youths to challenge rivals online.
The most dangerous, he said, is known as “catching lacking,” which entails recording an opponent doing something unrelated to gang activity such as studying or running errands with family. When the video is put online, it can prompt a recorded reprisal in which the rival tries to save face. Such a reprisal can be violent.
“There’s actually an entire YouTube genre dedicated to displaying young people trying to catch each other lacking,” Stuart said.
A second strategy for challenging gang opponents through social media, Stuart said, is calling bluffs.
The sociologist described the way gang-associated youths may view social media photos showing rivals “protecting” their territory: “All these pictures [show] you’re standing out in front of your housing project [or on] the corner, and you’re heavily armed and you guys have all these guns and you’re protecting your block. Well, one way I can challenge that is to drive past and take a cell phone video and show that you’re not actually out there when you say you are.”
The third and most prevalent strategy is what Stuart calls “cross-referencing,” which means exposing a rival’s weak moments documented online by a photo or statement.
“The challenger will grab it and juxtapose it with displays of toughness and displays of violence, so the public can put this to scrutiny,” Stuart said.
Stuart’s article describes a young man confronted on Facebook with an image from four years earlier. The photo showed him smiling and awkwardly dressed in an oversized tuxedo before a school dance. A gang rival had found the photo and reposted it next to a more recent image — a selfie in which the young man had portrayed himself standing menacingly on a street corner.
The rival, Stuart wrote, added a caption: “Sweet bruford say he a savage.”
Every day, the sociologist told WBEZ, gang-affiliated Chicagoans use social media to post hundreds of insults and threats against opponents. Few of those postings spark violence, he said.
Asked for comment on Stuart’s article, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi pointed to “several incidents” in which “individuals have been shot for ‘cyber-banging’ or taunting rival gang members on live streams.”
Guglielmi said CPD and federal agents last year dismantled a “significant gun-running operation” that had been using private Facebook groups.
Just a few weeks ago, he said, CPD and the feds “busted a website where guns were being sold and communicated through social media platforms.”