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Study: Cops overstate effects of social media on Chicago gang violence

File/Associated Press
May 10 2019

When Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart ran an after-school violence prevention program on Chicago's South Side a few years ago, he says he got to know a young man he calls "Tevin."

"Over the course of a single week, Tevin posted a series of photos to Instagram that depicted him holding a large pistol in a number of private settings, including his bedroom, bathroom and living room," Stuart wrote in a new article for the journal Social Problems.

Tevin, according to the sociologist, described the images as an effort to convey a tough identity to social media audiences: "They could see on my [Instagram profile] that I don't even take a piss without the pole."

But when Stuart asked Tevin where the gun came from, the young man admitted he had borrowed it, for only a short time, from a visiting cousin and that he took all the photos within minutes. Tevin even changed his clothing for each photo and posted the images on different days, giving the impression he still possessed the gun, the sociologist wrote.

Tevin's ruse is among many shows of bravado that Stuart documented during two years of research into how young South Siders use social media in gang conflict. The sociologist says the after-school program enabled him to recruit 60 youths in five gang factions to participate in the research.

Stuart told WBEZ his key finding is that law enforcement authorities that monitor platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram do not seem to understand what they see. He said police officers, judges and probation officers "have massively overestimated the direct linkage between what someone does online and what someone does offline."