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The Code War

The Gangsternet

A Google Ideas-funded study found that American street gang members use the Internet mainly for self-promotion and posting YouTube videos.

The Gangsternet

The idea for the Google Ideas-funded study was ingenious. Three academics would speak with hundreds of American street gang members and conduct an empirical study of their Internet use. Do gang members here in the United States commit cyberfraud and electronic crime like their counterparts in Russia and Asia? Or do American gang members prefer to use Facebook and Twitter to keep tabs on competitors? It seems the answer is neither—American gangsters prefer to use the Internet to talk smack and self-promote.

David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University, cowrote a study called Criminal and Routine Activities in Online Settings: Gangs, Offenders, and the Internet (paywall) along with Scott Decker of Arizona State University and Richard K. Moule Jr., an Arizona State doctoral student. The three researchers spoke with current and former gang members nationwide, along with individuals from high-crime neighborhoods. Nearly 600 people were interviewed all in all through recruitment methods as varied as street outreach programs in Los Angeles and contact with parolees in St. Louis.

Unlike street gangs in other countries, American gangs largely eschew networking through the Internet. "[We] don’t talk about it [gang business] because the police is on there," one participant told the researchers when asked if they used social networking sites to communicate. However, social networking sites are widely used for self-promotion. The researchers found that 46% of the gang members polled reported posting gang-related videos online, and that 56% reported watching gang-related videos online. Despite the taboo against gangs using the Internet for logistical purposes, 11% of gang-affiliated respondees claimed to use the Internet for organizing activities nonetheless. 19% of gang members also claimed their street gang had a website of some sort. When queried about gang video use, the researchers were told that watching them was "entertaining" and not much different than watching a boxing or UFC match.

Google Ideas, which funded the trio's research, is a "think/do tank" based in New York which specializes in issues surrounding technology's effects on society. While much of Google Ideas' work in the past has focused on issues surrounding Internet use by drug traffickers and violent terrorists, this is one of the organization's first forays into American street crime.

"What they are doing online is typically what they are doing on the street […] For the most part, gang members are using the Internet for self-promotion and braggadocio, but that also involves some forms of criminal and deviant behaviors," Pyrooz said. One quarter of gang members also reported using Google to keep track of other gangs—as one former gang member put it, "[We] Google rival gang names, see what shows up."

Although the Google Ideas study only paid attention to American street gangs, their behavior appears to be very different from those of street gangs in other countries. European street gangs have embraced the Internet to varying degrees, while Russian and Southeast Asian criminals have discovered that online scams and contraband running are more lucrative than working their neighborhoods. But, in America, as the authors soberly put it, "[Our] sample lacks the technological competencies to wreak the level of havoc that is concerning to security professionals." In other words, America's street criminals lack the computer savvy of their international counterparts.

[Image: Flickr user Clinton Steeds]