For 19-year-old Gakirah Barnes, the so-called “teen queen" of Chicago's gang world, social media was essential to crafting a reputation on the street. On Twitter, Barnes made threats against cops and rival gangs. On Instagram, she posted photos of herself holding a gun.
But social media may also have played a role in her death. In April 2014 she tweeted the address of an apartment frequented by her and her friends. Hours later, Barnes was shot and killed a few blocks away.
Recently a group of researchers set out to study the role that social networks play in youth gang violence, including Barnes' death.
"What we’re seeing is a new form of communication that facilitates and amplifies violence," said Desmond Patton, who researches violence on social media at Columbia University and was a co-author of the study.
Patton is fascinated by how the convergence of digital and urban spaces are affecting gang behavior. Historically, strict territorial boundaries limited the encounters one gang might have with another, but on networks like Twitter, rival gang members can bump into each other all the time.
"Gang members carry guns and Twitter accounts," Patton wrote in a previous paper.
Among Chicago youth gangs, the recent study found that networks like Twitter don't just give the violence of street life a digital platform but may encourage more violence on the street. "Social media accessibility can extend the reach of threats and, thus, reactive action, particularly in tightly bound urban spaces," they found.
But Patton told me more research is needed to determine for certain whether Twitter actually causes more violence.
Patton and his co-authors conducted an in-depth analysis of Barnes’ Twitter communications and those of her close friends. They combed through tweets, categorizing and coding them to get a sense of how rivaling gang members used Twitter to respond to different types of situations.
They found that gang members used social media to brag about weapons, make threats, warn opponents to stay on their own side of town, and after deaths, to mourn and provoke.
"People compared online gang violence to cyberbullying, but it felt different," he told me. "If [a gang member] makes a comment online, it can quickly become homicide. People are rarely killed over cyberbullying."
Tweeting a location, like Barnes did just before her death, might provide an opportunity for violence. Referencing physical locations on Twitter offered both the opportunity for volatile situations to bubble over by drawing rivals to a mutual location and a warning for rivals to stay away.
"Young rappers are getting involved in Twitter battles and tweeting their location and then they are killed in those locations," Patton said. "And it happens fast."
Likewise, among gang-involved youth on Twitter, firing off an angry, violent or mournful tweet seemed to trigger violent reactions—the same principle that fuels harassment by online mobs. But in this case, the study found, online aggression could easily spill into real world violence.
One of the most interesting things about the role Twitter plays in gang violence is that it creates a place where it all just unfolds in the open. Patton hopes that might create opportunities for outsiders to intervene and help stop it—and also, then, for police to monitor it.
"What we know is that a lot of people are having conversations online that lead to people harming each other," he said. "This is an emerging issue and the problem is only going to grow."