When Being ‘Facebook-Famous’ Leads to Violence

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Image by Mark Kens via Flickr

The urge to be “Facebook-famous” or “Instagram Famous” is helping to drive the increase in gun violence among young people in many urban neighborhoods, say two former gang members who now use social media as a tool to stop online conflicts from turning fatal in the real world.

Mike Perry

“People are performing for the show—they know there’s an audience,” said Mike Perry, who works as a “violence interruptor” at the Central Family Life Center in Staten Island, NY.

Perry, speaking on the latest episode of “Criminal Justice Matters,” which airs June 7 on CUNY-TV in the New York region, says he has successfully intervened in nearly 40 online sessions which appeared headed towards tragic outcomes by texting participants to cool down.

Samuel Jackson, who works as a “violence interruptor” for a program in Bronx, NY called “Bronx Connect, ” said he has had similar success by staying alert to the coded insults and threats he sees online.

“My phone is in my hand 24/7,” he said. “I get an alert, and I’ll comment on it, get into people’s minds to see where they’re at.”

Perry and Jackson say they pay special attention to “tonalities” and aggressive language online that could be indicators of future trouble.

Both are part of a new program called E-Responder, which trains neighborhood workers on methods to intervene on social media to prevent violence.  The program, piloted last year, was developed by the New York Citizens Crime Commission in partnership with NYC Cure Violence and researchers from the Steinhardt School of Culture, education and Human Development at New York University.

In a conversation with “Criminal Justice Matters” host Stephen Handelman, they admitted that intervening on social media couldn’t address the root causes of violent behavior among young people, such as gang influence, childhood trauma and, most prominently, then easy access to guns.

Samuel Jackson

“It’s still scary (in our neighborhoods),” said Jackson who, like Perry, has lost both friends and family members to gun violence. “It’s bigger than us, and (when it comes to guns) politicians have to step in.

“Violence is very real on the streets of New York and all over this country.”

Perry said many young people are already struggling with deep trauma because of experiences at home or on the street.

“A lot of young brothers and sisters don’t have the tools yet to master the trauma they’ve been through,” he said.

And for many, social media often acts as a platform to play out threats and insecurities in an effort to win attention and influence.

“People want to be Facebook-famous, Instagram-famous or Snapchat-famous,” said Perry.

But the two violence interrupters said their own life stories offered hope that change was possible.

“We had to make a decision about what we wanted to do with our own lives,” said Perry.

Editor’s Note: In an earlier column for The Crime Report, NYC Citizens Crime Commission President Richard Aborn calls on Facebook and other social media institutions to be more aggressive in monitoring online violence.

The monthly Criminal Justice Matters program, produced at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is sponsored by the college’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. Stephen Handelman, director of the Center, is also editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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