Photo by Jason Howie, Flickr CC

In recent months, Facebook faced intense scrutiny due to the streaming of violent acts on their live streaming service. Beyond the live sharing of violent crimes, the proliferation of social media has transformed criminal activity, ranging from the advent of cyberbullying to the widespread dissemination of terrorist propaganda and recruitment. And social science research also suggests that gang members are also employing social media. These gang affiliates, typically adolescents and young adults, use their online presence to promote their gang identity and gain notoriety, in a phenomenon often called “cyberbanging.”

Gang members use the internet at equal rates and in similar ways to their non-gang peers, but their online behavior serves an additional symbolic purpose: demonstrating a gang affiliation. A survey of 137 adolescent gang members found that 74% reported using the internet to show or gain respect for their gang. Therefore, the Internet does not appear to be a tool that gang members use to further the interests of their group by recruiting members or promoting activities; rather, the web is a space for existing members to demonstrate and solidify gang status by watching videos of gang fights or posting taunts against competing gangs. Gang members are increasingly aware that the police monitor their activity online, so they attempt to avoid posting anything publicly about specific criminal acts, which could threaten the gang as whole.
Like other groups, however, the social organization of gangs determines their behavior both offline and online. Gangs that have been around longer, have an established hierarchy, and have a set of rules and responsibilities are more likely to have a website and organize or post activities online, while newer gangs are more likely to use the internet as a recruitment tool. This pattern would be predicted by sociological research on organizations , which finds that the social context of a group’s founding shapes its future development. Preliminary evidence also suggests that gang members are engaging in more online criminal activity, such as pirating music or selling drugs, than non-gang or former gang members, but this online criminal activity is, as expected, more common among those with higher levels of computer skills. Despite these emergent trends, we still know very little about how gangs use the internet and what role social media plays in gang culture and crime. Gang researchers are therefore looking beyond “gangbanging” on the streets and into the “cyberbanging” on the web.