In a city that, for the past two years, has faced historically high numbers of homicides and shootings, it is often difficult to grasp how different factors contribute to the spike in crime in Philadelphia. And among the gruesome headlines and daily reports of violence, one emerging trend has made it particularly challenging to understand: that many shootings appear to have been provoked or exacerbated by disputes over social media.
The murders of Jarell Jackson and Shahjahan McCaskill are just one such case. In October 2020, gang members gunned down the two lifelong friends in a drive-by shooting just outside Jackson’s mother’s house. An investigation by the Inquirer found the shooting took place “over an Instagram feud” between rival gangs that neither were involved in.
That rationale wasn’t uncommon. In March 2021, a WHYY report noted police believed a series of shootings between 2018 and 2019 “to be the result of a handful of rival groups feuding with one another over insults hurled back-and-forth online.”
“We have video, we might have cell phone data, we may have DNA, we may have ballistics, and there’s always some social media that connects to all those things that helps put the case together,” says Frank Vanore.
“It’s part of the crime scene, it’s part of the evidence,” says Frank Vanore, deputy commissioner of investigations in the Philadelphia Police Department.
Vanore says that these kinds of incidents happen “every day,” and that feuds escalating over social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and even YouTube have contributed to the recent uptick in shootings. While he can’t pinpoint a specific date when the PPD began to take notice of the phenomenon, he says that it dates back several years.
“We have video, we might have cell phone data, we may have DNA, we may have ballistics, and there’s always some social media that connects to all those things that helps put the case together,” he says.
A ‘serious factor’ in escalating conflict
The relationship between social media and real-world violence is complicated and difficult to prove definitively.
For the last 10 years, Dr. Desmond Patton has studied social media and its relationship with offline violence, primarily in Chicago. He has worked with computer scientists to develop algorithms that can detect “psychosocial codes” such as aggression, grief, loss and substance abuse on social media, particularly on Twitter, and believes that “AI and social media can be a better diagnostic tool for better understanding root causes of community-based violence.”
“We do have lots of observational and anecdotal evidence from outreach folks and violence interruption workers … that are concerned and are raising alarms around the amplification of violence through social media,” Patton, director of the SAFELab research initiative at Penn, says. While he can’t say for sure if social media is a “trigger” for violence, what he has heard from workers in the field is enough to raise alarms.
Patton coined the phrase “internet banging,” referring to the way that gangs and their members trade insults and issue challenges to each other’s reputations, which through escalation can result in real-life violence and homicide — even for those who were never involved in the beef to begin with, as with Jackson and McCaskill.
“They’re just putting it on public display,” says Mazzie Casher, “I feel like [it] forces people’s hand to respond, because if your total self-worth is invested in your profile, or your appearance online, then it’s going to be necessary that you respond or retaliate.”
Another way that social media posts can escalate to violence, Patton explains, is the way that individuals express grief about violence in their neighborhoods on platforms like Twitter. Negative responses to those expressions of grief on social media can trigger aggressive backlash, according to his research on the social media presence of deceased Chicago gang member Gakirah Barnes. Barnes participated in “internet banging” — vowing revenge for the death of her friend — just days before she herself was killed in a shooting in 2014.
Mazzie Casher, who co-founded the Philadelphia anti-violence initiative Philly Truce in 2021, describes social media — and Instagram particularly — as an “amplifier” for conflict. “[I mean] they’re just putting it on public display,” he says. “I feel like [it] forces people’s hand to respond, because if your total self-worth is invested in your profile, or your appearance online, then it’s going to be necessary that you respond or retaliate.”
Conflicts on social media don’t only take the form of Tweets, posts and direct messages. Beefs manifest as music videos published on YouTube, as well. According to Vanore, rap groups will often make disparaging songs about their enemies, and these antagonistic videos can at times spark violent confrontations.
“There’s a lot of them out there … I don’t know if they’re receiving money for some of the videos or not, if it’s lucrative or they’re just doing it to do it,” Vanore says. “But we’ve had video shoots … that would turn into a gun violence incident, where they’re filming and next thing you know there’s a shooting going on.”
Little data to back up causal connection
Some experts are not quite convinced about the link between social media and violence. Forrest Stuart, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, says that there just isn’t enough information to make definitive claims one way or another. “I find that I am increasingly an unexciting person to talk to about this stuff, precisely because I feel like my response to this stuff is a lot more measured than people want it to be,” he jokes in an interview.
Stuart has spent thousands of hours interviewing dozens of gang members and gang-associated youth, like Patton focusing his fieldwork in Chicago’s South Side. In some cases, he sat down with shooters immediately following an incident and asked them, what did social media have to do with this? In 2020, he published a book about his research and findings, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy.
There are many confounding factors to take into account. For instance, low clearance rates for shootings and homicides — that is, the percentage of these cases solved by the police — limits what is known about those incidents: in Chicago, Stuart says, “we’ve seen shooting clearance rates below 10 percent, sometimes as low as 5 percent … We have so much missing data. We have 95 shootings out of 100 where we don’t know not just who it was, but why they did the shooting. Was it related to social media? And were social media and posts actually the catalyst for the shooting?”
“We have 95 shootings out of 100 where we don’t know not just who it was, but why they did the shooting. Was it related to social media?” — Forrest Stuart
There are so many different variables that play into what causes a shooting or violent incident, and so little of that data has been collected, that Stuart believes establishing a causal connection between social media and violence is impossible at this point.
“It’s this huge catalog of on-the-ground factors that we would have to collect, all those for tens of thousands of shootings, in order to be able to model this thing.” Stuart said. “But we’re just light years away from that.”
What we do know is that social media has assimilated into the long list of factors associated with violent crime, as we can see in academic literature and books like Ballad of the Bullet, in headlines about innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire and testimonies of anti-violence activists.
So what can be done about it?
The PPD already has an intelligence bureau dedicated to monitoring social media, keeping tabs on the public accounts of individuals and groups at risk of being involved in violent incidents, acquiring warrants to preserve posts that may connect people to crimes, and taking preventative measures when possible. Vanore believes that tracking the “footprints” of victims of violent incidents and potential suspects — for example, posting photos with firearms — has had the most impact on investigations. Acting proactively on social media, he says, prevents shootings.
Social media beefs can be squashed through conflict mediation services offered by organizations such as Philly Truce. Recent efforts by Casher and Philly Truce’s other co-founder, Steve Pickens, have focused on children in middle school, but social media beefs in school can still lead to physical fights or even threats of gang violence. The effectiveness of these efforts can vary on a case-by-case basis, but according to Casher, “getting them face-to-face is really the trick of the whole thing.”
Another pathway to dampen feuds on social media is education, such as digital literacy courses in K-12 schools. “This is a time when a lot of young people are being introduced to social media, and yet we don’t have clear education around how one might become a thriving and healthy digital citizen,” Patton says.
“We just assume that people know what it means to be online, and yet we have lots of evidence that suggests that a lot of us, regardless of age, don’t really know how to behave on social media platforms,” he continues. “There needs to be increased investment in training a variety of folks — mental health practitioners and physicians and educators — about ethical uses of social media for transformational justice in this space.”
“Getting them face-to-face is really the trick of the whole thing.” — Mazzie Casher
For Stuart, gearing anti-violence community organizations to the digital space is a valuable way to address social media-driven gang violence. One group he has worked with closely, the Institute for Non-Violence Chicago, intervenes in potential conflicts by sending out individuals who grew up in or are familiar with the communities where conflicts are taking place to talk to those involved.
“Now that they’ve got a foothold in neighborhoods, some of their younger violence interrupters who are a little more social media savvy are beginning to ‘friend’ and follow and [monitor daily] the young folks in the neighborhood,” Stuart explains.
There is evidence to indicate that these kinds of programs are helpful in mitigating violence. The Institute for Non-Violence Chicago claims it was able to conduct 300 mediations that “likely prevented a shooting.” PhillyTruce, while a much smaller operation, says that Casher and Pickens have been able to conduct 25 mediations so far, five of which “de-escalated without further incident.”
The two PhillyTruce co-founders recently expanded their services with the introduction of the Safe City Boys program, which held its inaugural Safe City Summit on May 8. The program gears itself toward boys aged 11-15, training them in conflict resolution and financial literacy, as well as teaching creative arts, civics and tools for employment, and will take place every Monday until June 12.
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