Studying Gang Tweets Could Reduce Gun Violence, Researchers Say

A Columbia University study argues that studying aggressive tweets among gang members, particularly after a loss, could cut short the cycle of gang-revenge killings if grief counselors and other mental health services intervene in time.

Could studying gang members’ social media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook, reduce gun violence?

Authors of a study published this month in NPJ Digital Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, found that aggressive tweets among gang members usually come two days days after they tweet about loss.

This two-day grace period can—and should—be utilized by grief counselors and other mental health services to reduce the likelihood of gang violence, the authors from Columbia University argued.

“They are using Twitter to talk about their exposure to violence and they are using the (social media) platforms to cope,” the study’s lead author, Desmond Patton, told The Chicago Tribune.

“The way this is spun in the media is there are all these violent comments happening. What I am seeing is people who initially are grieving and over time those comments became aggressive,” he continued. 

Two days after a loss tweet, the study found a 21 percent increase in the expected number of aggressive tweets.

However, loss tweets did not appear predictive of aggressive tweets three or more days out—demonstrating the short span of time counselors and mental health personal would have to intervene.

Researchers looked at over 2,256 tweets from self-identified gang members and 230 unique Twitter accounts.

Patton, an assistant professor in Columbia’s School of Social Work, used the story of Gakirah Barnes as a basis for the study. 

Four years ago, Gakirah Barnes, a Chicago gang member, learning a friend had been slain, posted a praying hands emoji on her Twitter account lamenting the death.

Barnes’ grief quickly turned to anger. Within minutes she again took to social media, vowing revenge on her rivals — even if they weren’t the ones responsible for killing her friend.

Four days later, Barnes, just 17, was dead.  She was shot as she stood with friends on a street in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The online corridors where gang members taunt and threaten rivals has become an increasing area of study, and judges in the criminal justice system have taken note.

Last week, when it came time to sentence a teen convicted in a Chicago armed robbery, a Cook County juvenile court judge told the young man to wipe his Facebook feed and any other social media accounts clean of references to “gangs, guns and drugs” and refrain from posting on those topics while on probation. 

See also: Judge’s Edict: Wipe Gang Images From Facebook

While the work of Columbia researchers studying social media and gang violence is not yet finished, they conclude they already have found at least one important trend in the tweets — the aggressive posts that draw so much attention are often preceded by something more like a cry for help, which should be met with an immediate response by trained professionals.

The study can be found here.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.