Chicago's gangs have long been active not only on the street, but online as well. On Youtube they threaten each other, on Instagram they pose with their weapons, in livestreams they provoke their adversaries. While the gangs of Chicago used to roar through the wide streets with their heavy cars, today they increasingly use their smartphones to engage with their opponents.

The digital showdown can have deadly consequences: 17-year-old Gakirah Barnes of the Tooka Gang, an African-American gang on Chicago's South Side, made public battles on Twitter several years ago, calling herself a killer. After a dispute online she was shot in the street. She would have slipped inconspicuously into the statistics of dead gang members, if her online behavior was not noticed - her case has shown, where "cyber banging" can lead.

That cyberbanging, a hybrid of cyber and so-called "gang banging," is a threat to the struggle between gangs on the street, says Desmond Patton, a professor at New York's Columbia University. "Cyber ​​banging is leading to an increase in aggression and threats that can lead to real violence - it does not have to be the root cause of violence, but many social media conversations are swirling," he says. Because young people wanted to uphold their reputation, they felt compelled to counter negative comments. That leads quite well to violence, which can escalate if the victims have weapons.

Many have their enemies as friends on Facebook

Chicago's murder rate is high, with more than 550 people murdered in 2018. The city does not control its violence problem, even though it is smaller than New York or Los Angeles. For 2019, statistics so far count 53 dead by mid-March.

26-year-old Luz Cortez in the South Side district of Chicago Lawn knows the gang life from the inside. For those who grow up there, the gang becomes friends and family at the same time. You learn the rules from the elders. "Social media makes it more dangerous, some people do not even go outside to get dressed, they're a different person online, and they call themselves gangsters, even though they're not," says Cortez.

Cortez's cousins ​​tell gang members go into enemy neighborhoods and film on their cell phones - knowing that the location is displayed. "Cell phones let you see who's out there at what time, so you're an easy target," says Luz Cortez. "But it provokes the opposing gang and brings you street credit." Many have their enemies as friends on Facebook because they want to see what they do, what weapons they have, "says Cortez.

"Reputation means survival"

The researcher Desmond Patton, together with colleagues, founded the SAFE Lab, analyzing the causes and processes of violence. What used to happen offline, is potentiated in social media. "Reputation means survival, especially in areas where there is violence, and if I have a reputation for being tough, I can protect myself," says Patton. As in the case of Gakirah Barnes, who was brutal with weapons in the net, appeared in rap videos.

It is often rappers who cheer the fights online, also because they rap about the scene and declare themselves loyal to one gang and attack others. The slang, language and music are provocative, but what the research team has found out about Patton shows a different picture: teens do not go to trolls online but to mourn.

It is the environment in social networks that turns grief into aggression. Patton and his team have spent years analyzing data from Twitter, from young people involved with gangs, mostly from Chicago. In their data set of about two million tweets and 9000 users, they have investigated the question of loss and have found patterns: Posts that were actually about grief and trauma were followed by threatening or aggressive posts.

Grief turns into aggression

The young people do not go online primarily to be aggressive. On the contrary: "They talk about their everyday lives, use the platforms pro-social," says Patton. "They are vulnerable, seeking attention and help, but when others disturb that and comment on their grief, they become threatening and aggressive, and teenagers feel that they need to protect themselves, their friends and family."

Gakirah Barnes was murdered by the death of her 13-year-old brother and later the death of a friend, triggering an active Twitter affair. Her tweets changed from grief to threats.


Mourning is often behind the aggression - as with Gakirah Barnes, who can be seen here with a weapon in the YouTube video of Fly Boy Gang (screenshot)

Social media is a challenge, and young people in particular are not getting along with the rhythm, says Patton. "Adolescents are still mentally developing, they say things faster without thinking, and this is opposite to technological development," says the researcher. "Everything goes fast: fast action, quick thinking, quick breaks, all real time - that does not go well with a youthful brain."

Confidence in the police is low

While many non-governmental organizations in Chicago work less on the web, more on the street, Patton sees the future in a combination of online and offline prevention. With simulated training situations, he hopes, teens and social workers can be prepared for what can potentially happen and what solutions there are. On the one hand, in Neighborhood Organizations, which gather data from Patton's research team and detect potential aggression over social media responses before they break out. On the other hand, there are virtual training rooms in which behavior, actions and their consequences can be practiced in online worlds.

However, collecting and processing data from networks and linking to personality profiles is a sensitive issue. Chicago has relied on predictive policing for a long time to identify and monitor potential criminals using online data and profiling. However, Patton does not want to make his work available to the police.

Confidence in the Chicago Police Department is low. Often black teenagers are suspected and analyzed. So-called racial profiling and wrong sentencing are a risk. The police bring out the Gang Book every year, a kind of printed Facebook of alleged gang members. In the last version of 2018, the 100,000 alleged gang members were not only listed with photos, personal data, gang graffiti, for the first time social media posts such as Instagram, Youtube and Twitter are also printed in the profiles of the 400-page book.