Tweets and threats: Gangs find new home on the Internet

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 2:58 p.m. MST

In this Dec. 6, 2013 photo, Eddie Bocanegra, co-executive director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program, stands with his phone outside the organization's center in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. With the advent of social media usage by gangs, he says, "In the past you would have gangs approach you and say, 'Listen we're from the 'hood. Maybe you should get involved.' Now the kids are going to the gangs saying, 'I saw this. How can I be a part of it?'"

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

CHICAGO — The video is riddled with menace and swagger: Reputed gang members in Chicago point their guns directly at the camera. A bare-chested young man brandishes an assault weapon. They flash hand signals, dance and, led by a rapper, taunt their rivals as he chants:

"Toe tag DOA. That's for being in my way ... Killing til my heart swell ... Guaranteed there's going to be all hell."

Thousands watch on YouTube. Among them: the Chicago police, who quickly identify two of those in the video as felons who are prohibited from being around guns. Both are later taken into custody.

As social media has increasingly become part of daily life, both gangs and law enforcement are trying to capitalize on the reach of this new digital world — and both, in their own ways, are succeeding.

Social media has exploded among street gangs who exploit it — often brazenly — to brag, conspire and incite violence. They're turning to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to flaunt guns and wads of cash, threaten rivals, intimidate informants and in a small number of cases, sell weapons, drugs — even plot murder.

"What's taking place online is what's taking place in the streets," says David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University who has studied gangs and social media in five big cities. "The Internet does more for a gang's brand or a gang member's identity than word-of-mouth could ever do. It really gives the gang a wide platform to promote their reputations. They can brag about women, drugs, fighting ... and instead of boasting to five gang members on a street corner, they can go online and it essentially goes viral. It's like this electronic graffiti wall that never gets deleted."

On the crime-fighting side, "cyberbanging" or "Internet banging," as this activity is sometimes called, is transforming how police and prosecutors pursue gangs. Along with traditional investigative techniques, police monitor gangs online — sometimes communicating with them using aliases — and track their activities and rivalries, looking for ways to short-circuit potential flare-ups.

It's a formidable task: There are millions of images and words, idle boasts mixed in with real threats and an ever-changing social media landscape. Myspace has given way to Facebook and Twitter, but gangs also are using Instagram, Snapchat, Kik and Chirp — different ways of sharing photos, video, audio and words, sometimes through smartphones or pagers.

"It's kind of like clothing — this is the style today but in two months, it won't be," says Alex Del Toro, program director at one of the branches of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program.

It's not just changing styles, but the language itself that can pose obstacles. Police often have to decipher street talk, which varies according to gang and city. In Chicago, for instance, a gun may be a thumper or a cannon. In Houston, a burner, chopper, pump or gat. In New York, a flamingo, drum set, clickety, biscuit, shotty, rachet or ratty.

That slang played a significant role last year for New York police and prosecutors. They pursued a digital trail of messages on Facebook and Twitter, along with jailhouse phone calls, to crack down on three notorious East Harlem gangs tied to gun trafficking, more than 30 shootings and at least three murders.

After 63 reputed gang members were indicted, authorities revealed they'd collected hundreds of social media postings to help build their case. Some messages, according to the indictment, were vengeful: "God forgives, I don't ... somebodie gotta die," one posted on his Facebook page. "I don't wanna talk. I want action n real guns," another said on Twitter. Others were boastful: "My team not top 2 most wanted youth gangs in Manhatten for nothin we got guns for dayss," a third posted on Facebook.

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