Vol. 76, No. 2Q & A

New platform, same old activities

In 2011, as part of a study commissioned by Google Ideas, David Pyrooz of Sam Houston State University in Texas, along with Scott Decker and Richard Moule Jr. of Arizona State University, interviewed 585 current, former and potential gang members about their Internet use. Mallory Procunier spoke with Pyrooz about the results of the study and what it means for law enforcement.

Your study suggests that street gangs aren't using the Internet to recruit members or commit cybercrime. Why is this?
Gangs recruit people they trust, and the Internet is an inherently untrustworthy environment. It's too difficult for gangs to figure out if signals that people are putting out are reliable or if they're dishonest. On Facebook, you can't tell if it's a law enforcement officer or some wannabe kid from the suburbs who is trying to friend you. The other thing is, why recruit online when there's such a huge pool of kids in your neighbourhood to recruit? They don't need it, nor do they want it.

They're not using it to commit these complex cybercrimes, either. Our general thesis is that how gangs act offline is how they act online. And because gangs are involved in a great deal of violence and extreme forms of criminal behaviour on the street, we thought the Internet would mirror this. This is what we observed. But we also found that gangs aren't really exploiting the Internet for its criminal potential. They aren't committing high-tech cybercrimes and they aren't facilitating connections with other criminal organizations. They're committing crimes that are more aggressive and involve threats and other analogous acts, much like the street. So what they're doing is not very complex, because for the most part, they don't have the technological know-how to do it in the first place.

What are they using it for?
The Internet is a big platform to promote reputations. A lot of what gang members do online is brag about women, drugs and fights. An extreme form of branding. It's almost like a very stereotypical hip hop video. YouTube is a huge cottage industry for gang-related activity. Query gangs, and what you're going to find is a lot of bragging, a lot of fights, and a lot of threats. You can get thousands of hits just by searching for gang and some variants. What law enforcement will typically do is try to use that information to either start a new case from scratch or to build on existing cases.

How do their online activities influence what's carried out on the street?
It's the online-offline connection. What we know is that the Internet is now an extension of social life. Between Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts, the divide between what occurs online and what occurs offline is increasingly shrinking. What happens online has implications for what takes place on the street, and that's the scary part. The Internet is fast-paced, with a large public audience, and it has very limited formal regulation. All gangs really need now is a smartphone and, after a few clicks, they don't need Hollywood to make movies about them anymore. There's very limited responsibility and ownership, and what that allows gangs to do is put their messages out on the Internet. All it takes is a disrespectful comment about a neighbourhood or gang member's girlfriend to spark an all-out gang war.

What can law enforcement agencies do to monitor gang activity online?
Many agencies are doing a great job with it so far, but there's more work to do. Some have task forces devoted strictly to monitoring gang activity online. A lot of specialized gang unit officers try to "friend" people and get positioned within influential networks to find out information.

Another avenue is to target the IP addresses, or you can go to YouTube and download videos. A strong suit of law enforcement is documentation and identification. Getting versed in the culture is critical. When you see key words being used, whether it's in Toronto, New York or Los Angeles, you can identify them. When somebody tweets the word "biscuit," for example, you know they're talking about a gun in New York City. Staying on top of the culture will help forecast new trends in gang behaviour.

What percentage of gang members are on social media?
Our study was conducted in Los Angeles, Cleveland, St. Louis, Phoenix and Fresno with people who are at different stages of criminal justice system involvement. And what we found was about 80 per cent of gang members, current and former, are online, which is consistent with national averages and a little lower than people in their age groups. But this study was conducted in 2011, and things change quickly. When we started our study, 70 per cent were on Facebook, about 40 per cent were on MySpace, and 10 to 15 per cent were on Twitter. I would imagine that the Twitter usage has increased a lot, even in the last two years.

What was Google's motivation behind this study?
Google commissioned the study because they are interested in extremist behaviour. They have a stake in this given their prominence on the Internet. A lot of these extremist groups no longer resort to their old methods of behaviour, such as distributing leaflets or broadcasting their propaganda on AM radio. They have the Internet now, and they can find their sympathizers and recruits online.

What Google's interested in is not only how these groups use the Internet, but also whether the Internet can promote disengagement from these groups – basically, if and how it can make somebody go from being an active to a former gang member.

Did you find anything in relation to that with gangs?
No. The Internet has a very big influence on gang activity, but we see its influence on the disengagement process to be indirect, at best. People don't stay in gangs that long. For the most part, only a small percentage stays in gangs beyond four years. Most kids are just in and out because a gang, for the most part, only partially satisfies basic needs. The main way people exit gangs is through natural social processes – they get a job, they enter into a romantic relationship, they have a baby.

One of the other things is disillusionment. Violence brings a gang together and helps it become more cohesive, but at the same time, violence has a threshold – when there's too much violence, these guys just want to get out. They're tired of the violence, the police harassment. To the extent that the Internet promotes more violence in gangs, it also indirectly relates to motivations for people leaving gangs.

That being said, much like other aspects of gangs, how gangs use the Internet is sensationalized a lot. It's a new avenue, it's interesting, and so there's a lot of wide interest in how these groups use the Internet. While people are very interested in gangs and violence and these extreme forms of behaviour, most of what gang members do on the street is just hang out. They go to the mall, they go to school, to the movies, to the basketball courts. We see this same sort of pattern taking place online. So it's the less-glamorous story here. They instant message, they're on YouTube, they bank online, buy songs on iTunes and shop online. They do all these things that are age appropriate. But there are some other behaviours that do creep up from time to time, which is the darker side to the Internet use. I think it's important to be balanced about the fact that most of what they do online isn't criminal, just like most of what they do on the street isn't criminal.

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