Graffiti — the traditional “newspaper” of the street gang — has long been used to mark territory and communicate messages. These days, says the Kansas City Star, gangs also are “all over social media,” one expert says, embracing a more modern way to make their presence felt and, in many cases, further their criminal enterprises. Whether it is Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or Instagram, gang members are becoming more adept at online communications. Though much of their communication mirrors the benign activities of their non-gang peers, a darker component exists, too.
“Activities online are sparking violence offline,” said David Pyrooz, co-author of a study of Internet gang activity. “That's when it gets real serious.” Some gang members use online tools to plan crimes, recruit members or challenge and threaten rivals, said Bruce Ferrell of the Nebraska-based Midwest Gang Investigators Association. Many of those kinds of back-and-forth “dissing” between rival gang members come in the form of rap lyrics that are recorded and posted online. One such online rap war had a deadly effect in Chicago last fall after someone shot and killed gang-affiliated rapper Joseph Coleman. That prompted several retaliatory killings. Much of the threatening and harassing words that gang members spew toward one another online may seem trivial, but it can “spark an all-out gang war,” said Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas.