Research studies gang activity on the internet, social media

Sam Houston State University criminal justice professor David Pyrooz, Ph.D., recently published research he co-authored regarding gang activity on the Internet.

The study “Criminal and Routine Activities in Online Settings: Gangs, Offenders, and the Internet,” is funded by Google Ideas.

According to the study, gang members are not recruiting members or committing any serious crimes via the so-called “information highway,” they are manipulating it as a means for self-promotion, as well as the exploitation of other gangs.

“What they are doing online is typically what they are doing on the street,” Pyrooz said. “For the most part, gang members are using the Internet for self-promotion and braggadocio , but that also involves some forms of criminal and deviant behaviors.”

Based on interviews conducted by the authorsùPyrooz, Scott Decker, Ph.D., and doctoral student Richard Moule (both of Arizona State University)ùthe study included a sample size of 585 young people in the cities of Cleveland, Ohio; Fresno, Calif.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and St. Louis, Mo.

“We had heard from a number of gang members throughout the years about the use of social media,” Decker said. “There is also the contention by some groups in law enforcement that gang members are sophisticated users of the internet. When we were approached by Google Ideas with support for this project, we were able to conduct the interviews.”

The study revealed internet activity of gang members is quite similar to that of non-gang members in the same age groupùusage of social media sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, are common factors binding the two groups.

“Gang members mostly do what their non-gang peers do on the Internet: they view music and movies, YouTube videos, buy music and goods and interact on social media,” Decker said. “Indeed, there isn’t a lot that distinguishes gang member use of the Internet from non-gang members. The distinguishing characteristics have to do with the posting of threats and YouTube videos about fights and threats.”

The research showed that gang members are 70 percent more likely to commit crimes online than their non-gang member counterparts. The type of crimes they commit do not demand the need for a complex understanding of the Internet, like identity theft or hacking into commercial enterprises. Instead, it is used to coordinate assaults, drug deals and robberies.

The study also showed that only 20 percent of gang members interviewed reported that their gang has a page on a social media siteùonly one-third of which are password-protected.

In addition, 25 percent of the participants admitted to using the Internet to research other gangs and more than 50 percent said they watched gang fights and videos online.

“Many respondents were simply interested in gang related fights and threats in general, finding them as entertaining as a boxing or UFC match,” Pyrooz said.

According to Decker, students need to be aware of gang activity on the Internet and can do so, by being on the lookout for threats against specific individuals or groups.

“As more and more aspects of life move to the Internet, we need to be aware of these new venues for gang activity,” Decker said. “In many cases, violence was precipitated by a threat or video posted on the Internet.”

Pyrooz said gang members are aware that law enforcement can monitor their behavior on the Internet and for that reason limit what they do and do not do via the Internet.

He also said law enforcement should continue to censor gang related paraphernalia on the Internet, and by doing so, end the cause of the issues.

“Technology is part of the problem, but it is just as likely part of the solution,” Pyrooz said.

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