Social Media

Social Media's Stark Effect on Violence in Chicago

The Chicago Police Department is aware of online trends and regularly monitors social media, authorities said

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While Chicago's violence is still driven by a combination of gangs, guns and drugs, it's also being fueled by social media.

Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern University, said it "kind of puts conflict on steroids."

"Social media exacerbates the problem, because what it does is expands the platform for interpersonal beef," said Williams, who was one of the authors of "The Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago," a report from the Great Cities Institute.

While gangs were once known for marking their territory with graffiti on bricks and mortar, nowadays they do so with posts online.

"People feel like they have to kind of protect their integrity and respond, and a lot of times, they respond with violence or killing somebody," activist Tio Hardiman said.

Hardiman leads a peace initiative called the Violence Interrupters, which tries to deescalate such conflicts before they turn deadly.

"Social media has a direct influence when it comes down to the violence here in Chicago and nationwide," he said. "Because when people post something on social media, it's out there for the whole world to see and a lot of people feel disrespected and feel they have to do something about it."

That "something," Hardiman says, is often an overreaction based on fear.

"Individuals feel they have to respond violently to any type of infraction, whether it’s a slight infraction or a higher level infraction…people are misunderstanding that they have to respond with violence," he said.

The Chicago Police Department is aware of the trends and regularly monitors social media in places like its strategic decision centers, watching the public accounts of people prone to being perpetrators or the victims of gun violence.

Officers are also looking for online “calls to action” like the looting that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and resulted in the formation of a special 20-person social media unit.

"We are just wanting to increase capacity," CPD Supt. David Brown said this summer. "We want to have a dedicated group. We currently have some efforts in this area, but we want to make this, obviously, better than we have."

Experts say more will be required to address the new reality of Chicago street gangs and the way they use social media.

"It's really more informal now, more fractured, more scattered, and it's going to take a different approach to police," Williams said.

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