Is Social Media Responsible for Tyshawn Lee’s Death?

The murder of innocent youth, like 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, is the non-random casualty of gang violence, which all too often nowadays is fueled by what gang members post on social media.

It is well known that gang violence is a serious public health problem, particularly in Chicago, Illinois, where it has claimed over 400 murders and 2,674 shooting victims so far this year.

What is less well known is that gang-involved youth rely on social networking sites like Twitter to communicate with friends and rival gangs.

Social media is creating a space for tough talk and online conflict — and potentially serious consequences if it spills over into the real world. In the case of the Tyshawn Lee, the Chicago Tribune has reported that tough talk on social media may have fanned the fire for retaliation, ultimately leading to his murder.

In my research and the work of others looking into this phenomenon, we have found that the way gangs use the Internet is a mixed bag. On the one hand, they engage in traditional activities like emailing, shopping, and connecting with friends. Many gang-involved youth on social networking sites report the hardships and atrocities they experience in their communities such as being denigrated by police and coping with the death and loss of family and close friends.

But youth also use social media to incite dares, taunt rival gangs, brandish weapons, make threats and plan violent acts — a set of behaviors described as Internet banging or Cyberbanging. It is this latter behavior we are studying more closely. Colleagues of mine from the University of Chicago have teamed up with the YMCA Violence Prevention Program to talk with 40 gang-involved adolescent boys and young men throughout Chicago about the types of communications online that move the conversation from online harassment to potential homicide.

Here are a few of our preliminary findings:

Direct Threat and Broad Exposure

Language explicitly directed towards an individual, family, gang, or clique tends to be interpreted as threatening in real life. One of our participants, Marcus*, said, “They won’t even put it on your page or in your inbox, they’ll put it right up as a status and tag your name in it so everyone can see.”

Location and Territory
Listing a street name in a threatening message is a quick way to identify where someone resides or public spaces where youth and gangs hang out, to make it easier to target them in real life. I asked another participant, Jarret, to interpret the following Twitter post from a recently deceased gang member: “Just bought some guns, I’m on way way through Lamron.” Jarret told me that “Lamron” was code for a gang faction and territory. He said, “Lamron is spelled backwards for normal, that’s a street where gangs hang out.” Jarret viewed this post as high risk for violence because the online user had just purchased weapons and was boasting about driving through a rival gang’s territory.

Disrespect
All participants agreed that the easiest way to move from virtual to violent is by posting something disrespectful about a deceased friend or gang member. Franco, for instance, told me about a time a rival gang member made a disrespectful comment on Facebook on a picture he’d posted of his recently deceased friend. He said “I know who he chilled with and just for him disrespecting my boy that passed away, me and my boys went after him. We were looking for him. We wanted to hurt him.”

Emojis
Threatening messages are not just found in text. During our study, we also learned that Chicago gang- involved youth can communicate entire threats in an emoji. A participant named Chris told us about a fight that happened at his school between two girls that started on Facebook: “You can say a whole sentence with an emoji… If I put an angry face, gun, a bomb, and put you running like a little something, that means I’m going to be on you with my gun.”

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Tyshawn Lee’s senseless murder has shocked a city already inured to gang violence. Two suspects have been apprehended; the hunt is now on for the third. Meanwhile, social workers, violence interventionists, law enforcement officials, and researchers of social media trends must work together in the hunt for clues to detect and prevent future gang-related homicides.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of study participants.