ArticlePDF Available


Social media provide novel opportunities for street gangs to operate beyond their traditional borders to sell drugs, recruit members and control their territory, virtually and physically. Although social media have contributed to the means available to street gangs today, it does not mean that every gang agrees on their use. Drawing on different perspectives (ex-gang members, law enforcement) on gangs using a multi-method design in a London borough, the current study shows that social media have polarized gangs, resulting in two distinct types of digital adaptation. The proposed division of ‘digitalist’ and ‘traditionalist’ gangs is rooted in Thrasher’s (1927) dictum that no two gangs are alike and explains how some gangs prefer to keep a low profile, thus, avoiding social media use. ‘Digitalists’, by contrast, prefer to use social media as a way to gain reputation and territorial expansion. They use it to brand themselves and to appear attractive for recruits and customers alike. These differences can be theoretically explained firstly as a generational gap, meaning that younger gang members prefer the use of social media; and secondly, by how well established a gang already is, as newer gangs need more attention to establish themselves.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
Available online 25 April 2020
0747-5632/© 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (
Full length article
No two gangs are alike: The digital divide in street gangsdifferential
adaptations to social media
Andrew Whittaker
, James Densley
, Karin S. Moser
London South Bank University, UK
Metropolitan State University, Minnesota, USA
Social media
County lines
Generation gap
Social media provide novel opportunities for street gangs to operate beyond their traditional borders to sell
drugs, recruit members and control their territory, virtually and physically. Although social media have
contributed to the means available to street gangs today, it does not mean that every gang agrees on their use.
Drawing on different perspectives (ex-gang members, law enforcement) on gangs using a multi-method design in
a London borough, the current study shows that social media have polarized gangs, resulting in two distinct types
of digital adaptation. The proposed division of ‘digitalistand ‘traditionalistgangs is rooted in Thrashers (1927)
dictum that no two gangs are alike and explains how some gangs prefer to keep a low prole, thus, avoiding
social media use. ‘Digitalists, by contrast, prefer to use social media as a way to gain reputation and territorial
expansion. They use it to brand themselves and to appear attractive for recruits and customers alike. These
differences can be theoretically explained rstly as a generational gap, meaning that younger gang members
prefer the use of social media; and secondly, by how well established a gang already is, as newer gangs need more
attention to establish themselves.
1. Introduction
The ‘father of gang research, Frederic Thrasher (1927, p. 5),
famously observed that no two gangs are just alike and for nearly a
century, empirical research on gangs has conrmed Thrashers endless
variety of forms.The question at the heart of this study is whether
Thrashers criminological maxim holds for the ways in which gangs
have adapted to meet the demands and opportunities of social media.
This paper examines the impact of digital technologies on street gangs
and the stakeholders who interact with them, from gang members to
victims, and consumers of gang artefacts to control agents. Drawing on
unique data from a multi-method study conducted in London, England,
this paper examines for the rst time how social media shape not only
gang member behaviors on the individual level, but gang behaviors on
the group level. One of the key dilemmas that gangs are facing today is
whether or not to embrace social media for their potential reputational
benets or to shun them owing to the danger of exposure that can
backre. While this is a problem gangs share with other social media
users, the stakes in illicit networks are presumably higher (Gambetta,
2009) as beyond law enforcement predation, gang members are at an
elevated risk for violent victimization (Katz, Webb, Fox, & Shaffer,
Gang research has experienced an international turn in recent
years, and since about 2008, the study of gangs was no longer the study
of gangs in the United States(Pyrooz & Mitchell, 2015, p. 43). For
example, in 2008, John Pitts published Reluctant Gangsters: The Changing
Face of Youth Crime, the rst study to challenge the prevailing wisdom
that Britain was characterized only by resistant youth subcultures but
not by violent street gangs (e.g., Campbell & Muncer, 1989). Drawing on
qualitative research in the London borough of Waltham Forest, Pitts
(2008) offered a theoretical explanation centered on the impact of
globalization and the concentration of poverty in deprived neighbor-
hoods, which acted as crucibles for gang activity. Pitts argued that gangs
had evolved out of traditional youth group structures and young people
were pragmatically joining them in an effort to negotiate the harsh re-
alities of an increasingly violent, territorial, street life.
Coincidently, 2008 was also the year the second generation iPhone
entered the UK market and Apple introduced the App Storeits
This article has not been published elsewhere and has not been submitted simultaneously for publication elsewhere.
* Corresponding author. Associate Professor and Head of the Serious Violence research cluster, School of Health and Social Care, London South Bank University,
103 Borough Road, London, SE1 0AA, UK.
E-mail address: (A. Whittaker).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Computers in Human Behavior
journal homepage:
Received 8 February 2020; Received in revised form 19 April 2020; Accepted 23 April 2020
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
distribution platform for third-party applications like social media. Pitts.
(2008) study of gangs made literally no mention at all of smart phones
and social media. However, subsequent research has found UK gangs use
popular platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat,
and Twitter to boast about their afliations and to antagonize their ri-
vals, whether in choreographed drill music videos or spontaneous posts
of everyday life (Densley, 2013; Irwin-Rogers & Pinkney, 2017; Pinkney
& Robinson-Edwards, 2018; Storrod & Densley, 2017).
Further, in the decade since Pitts. (2008) study, the online activities
of Britains gang members have come under increased public scrutiny.
HM Governments (2018) newly adopted Serious Violence Strategy
explicitly singled out social media for glamorizing gang life, escalating
gang tensions, and normalizing weapon carrying. Social media also are
described as the central organizing feature of the county linesmodel of
drug distribution which describes the fact that today gangs trafc drugs
outside of traditional, local, territorial boundaries (Coomber & Moyle,
2018; McLean, Robinson, & Densley, 2020; Robinson, McLean, &
Densley, 2019; Storrod & Densley, 2017).
Therefore, it seems safe to assume that in the past decade social
media have completely changed the ways in which gangs and gang
members communicate and organize themselves. However, there is still
a tacit assumption in both ofcial reporting and the existing scholarship
that all gangs are created equal when it comes to social media adapta-
tion; which seems unlikely given Thrasher (1927) dictum and what we
know about (a) the digital generation gap in other (non-gang) contexts
(Ofcom, 2017) and (b) the complicatedsocial lives youth live on social
media more generally (Boyd, 2014).
The novel contribution of this research is that it examines percep-
tions of how social media have affected gangs, from the perspective of
ve distinct types of study participants: ex-gang members, gang-affected
youth, police ofcers and criminal justice workers, local authority
workers (community safety, education, early help and terrorism pre-
vention) and voluntary sector grassroots workers. This multi-method
study used interviews, focus groups and documentary analysis and
was conducted in the same London borough as the Pitts (2008) study,
thus providing a unique opportunity to look back at how, if at all, social
media have changed gang behavior. Our aim was to study the extent to
which social media were present in the gang landscape and how they
were used by street gangs. We specically aimed to investigate how
gangs approach the opportunities and challenges presented by social
media and how they adapt to new digital technologies, neither of which
have been addressed in previous research. In our study we found that
different gangs in the same geographical space used social media very
differently. The current study analyzed what this means for gang activity
and the construction of gang territory and gang identitykey dening
features of gangs (Thrasher, 1927; Valasik & Tita, 2018). In the
following sections we address the underlying theoretical framework and
develop the hypotheses guiding the multi-method study presented here.
1.1. Gangs and social media
For over a decade now, gangs have existed in a digital world (for a
review, see Pyrooz & Moule, 2019) and gang members have started
using the internet to showcase and promote gang culture and construct
gang identities (Morselli & D
etu, 2013; Moule, Pyrooz, &
Decker, 2014). Gangs use social media for a variety of reasons (Storrod
& Densley, 2017), from reputation building and identity construction
(Urbanik & Haggerty, 2018; Van Hellemont, 2012) to posting threats
and inciting violence (e.g., Johnson & Schell-Busey, 2016; Lauger &
Densley, 2018; Lauger, Densley, & Moule, 2019; Moule, Decker, &
Pyrooz, 2017; Patton et al., 2017b, 2017c, 2019). Recent research found
that a notable proportion of the violent posturing gangs engage in online
does not in fact, lead to real-world violence (Stuart, 2019). Still, for
many gang members, the digital street (Lane, 2019) has become as
meaningful and consequential as the physical street(Lauger & Densley,
2018, p. 817), evidenced in more recent studies in this area (Moule et al.,
2014, 2013; Pyrooz, Decker, & Moule, 2015; Urbanik & Haggerty,
As yet unexplored in the literature is the extent and the ways in
which different gangs, especially gangs in close conict or physical
proximity, adapt to social media and why. No two gangs are the same
(Thrasher, 1927) and we expect this is also true when it comes to social
media use. There are a variety of gang types (Klein & Maxson, 2006) and
evidence that gangs evolve over time owing to a combination of internal
and external factors (Ayling, 2011; Densley, 2014; McLean, 2018; Roks
& Densley, 2019; Thrasher, 1927). Gangs mature(Gottschalk, 2007),
for example, moving away from youthful, recreational, non-delinquent
pursuits (i.e., Thrasher, 1927) to more adult, entrepreneurial, and
criminal activities (Whittaker et al., 2020).
The current research, drawing on the perspectives of a variety of
gang observers, investigated to what extent the evolutionary stage of the
gang, and the age and the seniority of its members, inuenced its rela-
tionship with social media. Specically, we were interested in under-
standing whether there may be a ‘generation gap when it comes to
gangssocial media use, and whether early stage gangs and newer gang
members with tenuous street capital(Harding, 2014) may have more
to gain from signaling their reputations online (Densley, 2013)
compared to more highly evolved, later stage gangs and more senior or
established gang members.
Proximity to organized crime may equally affect this relationship
with technology, with more criminally embedded or discrete groups
saying no to social media because of its inherent capacity to incriminate
(Irwin-Rogers, Densley, & Pinkney, 2018). Some gangs may openly use
social media as a means of advertising, whereas others may eschew it as
attracting unwanted attention. Social media content, such a good rap
video, can promote a fearsome reputation that will warn off competitors
and create ‘brandrecognition for the gang (Lauger & Densley, 2018).
However, over exposure online creates online collateral(Storrod &
Densley, 2017) that is liable to get the gang in trouble, either with rival
gangs or with police (see also, Gambetta, 2009).
1.2. Social identity and the sense of belonging in social media
Given that a substantial part of gangs consists of young people in
their teens and early twenties (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015), it is worth
looking into the promotional side of online gang business more closely
(Martinez-Ruiz & Moser, 2019). There is a body of research into how
social media can provide a platform for self-expression and social
interaction (Hall, 2018) that create a sense of belonging and joint
identity. Teens and young adults are likely to be particularly responsive
to this, not only because they are ‘digital nativesbut also because they
are at a life stage when nding ones identity and place in the world
outside of their immediate family is central to becoming an adult
(Erikson, 1968; Sudbery & Whittaker, 2018). Conformity with group
norms and being accepted by peers can be particularly important at that
age and this can be compounded by deindividuation effects of digital
media (Kim & Park, 2011; Moser & Axtell, 2013). Teenagersneed to
belong for instance has been shown to predict their use of social media
and also their willingness to engage in collective action such as ash
mobs (Seo et al., 2014).
Social media participation is also central to building a reputation and
gaining social status among peers (Bacev-Giles & Haji, 2017), not only
but especially for young people. Being liked on social media and having
a large online network is often equated with social status among peers,
despite empirical evidence that people overestimate online status cues
(Bradley, Roberts, & Preston, 2019). Based on this previous research, we
assumed that gangs using social media and portraying themselves as
attractive in-group and point of social identication for teens (Hogg,
2001) are particularly attractive to that age group also for reasons that
are not directly gang related but have more to do with coming of age in a
society where social media provide one of the most important platforms
for social interaction and self-expression. This, in turn, could feed into a
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
‘generation gapin gang membersuse of social media, with younger
and older gang members having different levels of engagement with
social media, bearing in mind that group identity, group process, and
reputation-building are all central to gangs and in gang research (e.g.
Decker, Melde, & Pyrooz, 2013; Densley & Peterson, 2016; Felson, 2006;
Goldman, Giles, & Hogg, 2014; Short & Strodtbeck, 1965).
1.3. Hypotheses
According to Bechmann & Lomborg (2013), social media provide
two major avenues of value creation: rstly, economic and
socio-political value creation by exerting power, exploiting others and
creating business revenue; and secondly, value creation as
sense-making, by offering opportunities for self-expression and for
building and managing social relationships. With this in mind, we
advance the exploratory hypothesis that gangs make use of all of these
opportunities to create value, but that their specic use of social media
depends on the maturity of the gang and its evolutionary stage as well as
the gang member composition. We hypothesize specically that:
H1. older gang members and more mature/more evolved gangs will
utilize social media less for their activities because they already have
strong reputations, thus have less to gain and more to lose from social
media attention;
H2. younger gang members and less mature/less evolved gangs will
use the full range of social media opportunities available to build up
their reputations because they have more to gain and less to lose from
doing so.
To elaborate on the hypotheses, less established gangs have a far
greater need to use social media for both expressiveand instrumental
purposes than their more established counterparts (Storrod & Densley,
2017). First, to create a gang identity and build a reputation by pro-
moting events, music, and videos that speak to their members and
provide a social platform for interaction and identication. This can
provide opportunities to not only gain members but also to retain them
and to advertise events and distribution points for selling drugs and sex.
Second, to issue threats and send territorial signals to rival gangs and to
establish control of members and distributors on the ground. Social
media provide comparatively low risk opportunities to establish new
territories, gain membership, and set up drug distribution networks,
compared to potentially very costly physical confrontations and controls
on the ground (Densley, 2013). If this does not work, less evolved gangs
can still revert to traditional, physical means of threat and control and
can close down any social media activities quickly.
2. Methods
2.1. The study context
The present study was commissioned by Waltham Forest, the same
local authority in London, England, which was the focus of Pitts, (2008)
study, after a series of particularly violent gang-related murders, which
suggested that there had been changes in how gangs operated that
required further research and analysis. The ndings relating to general
changes in gang composition and activity have been discussed elsewhere
(Whittaker et al., 2018). The present research is focused specically on
social media use and gang evolution.
2.2. Research design
The research design was comprised of two-stages and was multi-
method, with three distinct research methods: interviews, focus
groups, and document analysis. The rst stage consisted of qualitative
semi-structured interviews (n ¼31) with ex-gang members, gang-
affected youth, police ofcers and criminal justice workers, local
authority workers (community safety, education, early help and
terrorism prevention) and voluntary sector grassroots workers. This was
combined with a document analysis of information from local agencies.
Once the entire dataset at stage one was analyzed and preliminary
ndings were developed, this was followed by a second stage to test
these preliminary ndings with two large focus groups (n ¼19 and n ¼
18) of key stakeholders from police and criminal justice agencies, local
government agencies and the voluntary sector grass roots organizations.
2.3. Sample and participants
The rst stage included individual interviews with 21 professionals
from the police and criminal justice agencies (24%), local government
agencies in community safety, education, early help and terrorism pre-
vention (38%) and voluntary sector grassroots organizations (38%).
Interviews were also held with 10 young people, including individual
interviews with four males who had very recently left gangs and a group
interview with four young women and two young men were not
embedded gang members but had extensive knowledge of local gang
activity and were recruited by the local authority. Further demographic
information has not been provided in order to protect the identity of
participants. Former gang members were recruited from local grassroots
gang intervention agencies, who had been involved in supporting their
recent gang exit.
We have used the term ‘former gang memberto denote people who
had some level of embeddedness in street gangs within the preceding 12
months and who self-nominated as former gang members. The in-
dividuals interviewed represented a range of different gangs and some
still retained strong social tiesto the gangs they had been involved
with (Pyrooz, Decker, & Webb, 2014). The study used the denition
used in the Dying to Belong report (CSJ, 2009) with ve key features: A
relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people
who: (1) see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;
(2) engage in a range of criminal activity and violence; (3) identify with
or lay claim over territory; (4) have some form of identifying structural
features; and (5) are in conict with other, similar, gangs (Centre for
Social Justice, 2009, p.48). This denition was shared with all in-
terviewees to ensure perceptions of ‘gangswere consistent. For a
detailed description of the gangs under investigation and the broader
contextual factors that lead to gang emergence and involvement in
Waltham Forest, please see Whittaker et al. (2018).
In line with university ethical protocols that approved the current
study, we were unable to interview any active gang members, and only
allowed to include ex-gang members and gang affected youth. This was a
compromise over fears that gang membersparticipation in the study
might endanger researchers and interviewees alike. This does pose some
obvious limitations which we address in the discussion.
In an effort to address some of these concerns, the dataset was sup-
plemented with a document analysis of data related to gangs and held by
local services. This provided useful historical data on specic gangs,
spanning over a decade, including previous offences and local intelli-
gence. We took a critical stance towards this data, seeking corroboration
through multiple sources and recognized that more recent data was
often poorer quality as suspects were becoming increasingly reluctant to
self-identify as gang members and actively seeking to hide their
The second stage consisted of two large focus groups (n ¼19 and n ¼
18) with key people from local governmental agencies, criminal justice
and grassroots organizations to test the nding from the preliminary
analysis of Stage 1. The aim of this stage was to ensure that we were not
imposing external interpretations and to ensure that the ndings were
corroborated by local stakeholders who worked with street gangs on a
daily basis.
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
2.4. Data analysis
Both the interviews in Stage 1 and the focus groups discussions in
Stage 2 were transcribed and the resulting data coded using the NVivo
11 qualitative data analysis software package. Data from the rst stage
were analyzed using a thematic analysis approach developed by Braun
and Clarke (2006) as this is an established process to analyze interview,
focus group, and documentary data. After familiarization with the data,
initial semantic coding was completed across the data set, focused on
what a participant explicitly said and/or what was written. Initial codes
were then reviewed to identify latent themesthe underlying ideas and
assumptions that shape and inform the semantic content of the data-
and to explore the relationship between themes. These themes were
then reviewed by the research team to ensure consistency within each
theme and across the whole dataset (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
At the second stage, the process was repeated as data from the focus
groups were analyzed using the same thematic analysis approach. The
coding for the data from the rst stage was reviewed and recoded in the
light of coding from the second stage. At both stages, the research team
found acceptable levels of agreement between different participants,
despite the diversity of their backgrounds. The resulting themes are
captured by the different subheadings in the Findings section below.
2.5. Ethics
Ethical approval was obtained from the rst authors university
ethics committee. Note, any research on gangs that leaves out crime
“leaves out a critical part of the phenomenon(S
1991, p. 16), but we were very clear with our interviewees that we
would never disclose identifying details of criminal activity (e.g., dates,
addresses, and victim proles) and in line with ethical requirements we
have written up the ndings responsibly to ensure they do not become a
blueprint for how gangs could use social media to advance their material
personal interests. This is information gang members and practitioners
already possess and could have reported if they were so inclined.
Like in Pitts. (2008) study in Waltham Forest, interviewees were
identied and accessed via a combined purposive and snowball sam-
pling technique that started with frontline practitioners in outreach
projects acting as gatekeepers. Participation in the study was voluntary
and predicated on the active and informed consent of all research par-
ticipants. All research participants were informed about the procedures
and risks involved in the research and appropriate steps were taken to
mitigate any risk of harm pursuant to their participation. For example,
great care was taken to protect the condentiality of all participants,
particularly the former gang members because of the (albeit minimal)
risk of retribution. This included separate interviews in settings that
participants felt were safe for them. We have used the real names of the
gangs in the borough in this paper, but these are well known already also
in the general media and in research (see Whittaker et al., 2018) and in a
borough comprised of 275,000 residents plus many more commuters
and tourists, chances of identication are slim. Transcripts were care-
fully anonymized and, to protect respondentsidentities, only restricted
demographic information about the participants has been included.
2.6. Findings
The central overall result of the current study was that gangs
demonstrated a sharp division in their attitudes towards and use of so-
cial media which could be clearly identied as two types of adaptation to
social media. Whilst some were ‘digitalistswho embraced technology as
a means of conducting business and developing the gangs identity,
others were ‘traditionalistswho eschewed social media as too risky and
‘bad for business. Further key ndings were a noted difference between
younger and older gang members in their relationship with social media
and the fact that social media completely changed the traditional
meaning that territory for gangs. Below the results are presented
according to these central categories identied in the data.
2.7. Logged off: the ‘traditionalist Model of Gang Adaptation
Some gangs in the study adopted an operating model that prioritized
maintaining a low prole to avoid police attention and to reduce the risk
of evidence that can be used against them. A former member of one of
the most criminally embedded gangs in the area, the Mali Boys,
conrmed this attitude towards social media:
No, no, social media denitely dont play no part because everyone keeps
away from social media [Mali Boys] keep away from social media,
yeah. Everyone keeps away from social media to be honest because they
are paranoid of the state. The police can go through your phone, this
person can go through your phone do you know what I mean?
(Participant 28, ex-gang member).
As well as concerns about smart phones that can be used as evidence
following arrest, there were other examples of gang members being
caught out through social media. For example, a criminal justice pro-
fessional described visiting a family about concerns that a young boy
was involved in a local gang:
We go round there and see them and their mum, I say were concerned
about your 13-year-old son and the mum says, my sons not in a gang,
youre just picking on him, which often happens. I say, ‘well this is my
laptop, have a look at this YouTube video and tell me if you recognize
anyone in thisand theres her son, at the front, spliff in his mouth,
holding a knife, hood up, Ill ‘Fyou up. (Participant 16, criminal justice
sector professional).
Of course, featuring in or sharing a YouTube videoeven with
claims of ‘gang life’—is not a legitimate or concrete indicator of real-life
gang involvement, and should not be interpreted as such by law
enforcement (Lane, Ramirez, & Pearce, 2018; Patton et al., 2017a). Prior
research demonstrates a gap between gang impressions and pre-
sentations online and actual gang behaviors (Stuart, 2019; Urbanik &
Haggerty, 2018; Van Hellemont, 2012). Still, law enforcement agencies
had used information collected from social media platforms in order to
track perceived gang membership and activities (see Densley & Pyrooz,
2019). For example, there had been a period when police ofcers
discovered that Facebook could be used as a means of gaining intelli-
gence information about potential gang members and their associates:
At one stage you could get loads of information from that because it had a
list of all their friends, their proles were open. And then they just, it just
all got shut down and then basically youve lost all that information so
its, theres a period where theyre utilizing it, law enforcement catches up
to that, catches on, theres a period when theyre like actually it works,
law enforcement is brilliant and then they change their use of it and they
dont post stupid things on social media now (Participant 12, local
government professional)
This incident had contributed towards Facebook being referred to as
‘Fedbook(Densley, 2013, p. 99).
Surveillance and use of social media by law enforcement and crim-
inal justice practitioners has changed over the last ten years, shaping
some of the perceptions discussed herein. In the past, when police were
unable to follow and watch social media, young people had far more
latitude to exploit it for criminal use. But in recent years, restrictions on
surveillance have been lifted and supported under the rubric of proac-
tive violence prevention (Densley & Pyrooz, 2019). As police powers
increased over the internet, gang members may have gotten wise to this
and changed their approach by moving to more private streams. Indeed,
the research even uncovered that young gang members working county
lines drug deals for gangs that were social media ‘traditionalists were
given old style Nokia phones when they were recruited in an attempt to
leave less of a digital footprint that could be used as incriminating
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
evidence, such as photographs. Similarly, young people would receive
instructions through telephone calls because text messages were deemed
more incriminating.
It is important to not assume that gangs were adopting a ‘tradition-
aliststance simply because they were not tech savvy. The gang that best
exemplied this stance, the Mali Boys, saw social media as an instru-
ment that could be weaponized either to be used against them or that
they could use against their opponents. It could be used against the gang
in the sense that it could provide criminal justice agencies with
incriminating evidence on their phones. However, the gang could use
social media as a weapon against the police in the sense that they used it
as an integral part of their surveillance activities on police ofcers.
Campana and Varese (2018) argue that if a gang can generate fear in
a community and corrupt legal gures then it is beginning to ‘govern
illicit production and exchange. The Mali Boys, a gang that has evolved
from a reactional gang into a serious organized crime group (Whittaker
et al., 2018)), used social media to gather information about the per-
sonal lives of police ofcers, which they could then use to intimidate
individual ofcers. This was conrmed by a senior police ofcer:
But the Mali Boys seem to have a business model and are a much more
professional outt. And that manifests itself in many different ways, such
as the intelligence collection they do on ofcers. So they try and intimidate
ofcers by collecting number plates etc and going on social media.
(Participant 11, criminal justice professional).
The Mali Boys also used mobile phone technology to place spotters at
strategic places to warn others of any police presence. In order to be
successful at this stage of gang evolution, the Mali Boys needed to have
to have an informational advantage in order to stay one step ahead of
any rival gangs and the police.
2.8. Logged On: The ‘Digitalist Model of Gang Adaptation
During the study, the use of social media platforms such as Snapchat
and Instagram were described as being some of the new tools that gang
members use to communicate with each other:
Social medias enabled people to communicate. I mean originally, it was
more around people using BBM to message people but its much more
sophisticated now so Im just wary of that, every young persons got a
smart phone. (Participant 9, pan-London criminal justice
But more than that, the second model of adaptation, ‘digitalist,was
one where gangs embraced social media and used it as a means of
promoting the gang, including their drug dealing activities:
Yeah, back in the day it was different, it was different. Nowadays people
are getting everyones watching their videos of gangs so they want to be
involved in it. (Participant 27, former gang member).
One of the main gangs using this approach is the DM Crew (originally
named after local areas that they controlled but also known as
‘Dangerous Minds). This gang is relatively new, to the extent it was not
identied in the original Pitts (2008) study of the borough. During the
period of the eldwork, members of the DM Crew were featured in a
music video on well-known former BBC Radio DJ Tim Westwoods
YouTube channel, which has 1 million subscribers. Other newer, less
evolved gangs, such as Chingford Hall and Priory Court also have a
notable internet presence on social networking sites.
Gangs have increasingly realized that more open social media plat-
forms such as Facebook could be used as evidence against them, so they
had learnt to use end-to-end encrypted forms of social media such as
Snapchat, as well as closed groups in WhatsApp, as a means of
communication because they are aware that these are less likely to be
monitored by law enforcement agencies. Gangs took advantage of the
temporary nature of images in social media platforms such as Snapchat
to advertise the sales of drugs without leaving incriminating evidence:
They use Snapchat to lm and sell what theyre selling. So it might be that
theyve got some drugs that they want to sell and they might publish that
on Snapchat: ‘So this is what Ive got at the moment, so that people can
see what they can buy (Participant 8, local government professional).
Gangs that have embraced social media and technology more
broadly have also realized its potential for exploitation and coercive
control. GPS location tags and popular apps such as Find My iPhone or
Find My Friends were used to keep junior gang members in constant
contact, particularly as they travelled far from home per the county lines
model of drug dealing. Junior gang members may be asked by senior
gang members to provide photo or video evidence of their journeys,
their surroundings, and their activities. This round-the-clock surveil-
lance, known as remote motheringbut tantamount to remote con-
trolling (Storrod & Densley, 2017), makes it difcult for young people to
focus on anything other than the gang or to seek help without arousing
suspicion from gang leaders.
Practitioners described how they struggled to keep up with the
rapidly evolving nature of technology and social media:
The older generation or people who are just law enforcement arent up to
date with the youngsters of today about whats happening and going on
There must be communication in some way, how theyre doing that is a bit
of mystery because if its, if youre not being exposed or given that in-
formation youre never going to know kind of thing (Participant 12,
criminal justice professional).
Its trying to keep up with them, well never be ahead of them, theyll
always be catching up with it and I think we were slow with the social
media kind of thing (Participant 16, criminal justice professional).
It might seem that the two approaches are incompatible, and it
would be difcult for gangs with different orientations to work together.
However, the DM Crew were part of a business alliance with the Mali
Boys, working under their umbrella while maintaining a separate
2.9. A generation gap?
Some of the ndings above can be explained by differences between
younger and older gang members in their roles and approaches to social
media. As observed in prior research (Storrod & Densley, 2017), videos
posted on YouTube tend to feature younger, more junior, gang members,
who have most to gain in establishing their reputation. The videos tend
not to feature the most senior members of the gang, who have already
established their reputations and prefer to maintain a low public prole
to avoid police attention. One participant stated:
Notably you dont get the upper gang members in the pyramid featuring,
its all the lower tier (Participant 16, criminal justice professional).
Participants explained this difference between younger and older
gang members in terms of their motivation:
The olders were making money, you recognized that but for the
youngers its all about respect (Participant 47, grass roots organization
Its about money for elders and that money is kept coming in by control
and status but the youngers, they just want the status. And if they thought
more about the money then maybe they wouldnt behave in the way they
do because stabbing someone over stepping on your trainer or looking at
you in a funny way is going to send you to prison and youre not making
any money, so I think theyve yet to grasp that concept (Participant 7,
voluntary sector professional).
Some of this carried over to the age of gangs themselves. For younger
gangs, social media provide a means of enhancing their ‘brand name,
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
enabling them to increase awareness of their products in drug markets,
recruit junior members and protect their markets against other sup-
pliers. One participant explained how social media make drug markets
attractive to others as part of a wider materialist culture:
People just watch social media and want to be like social media The
drugs culture for me is what we see on social media, everybody wants
money, its materialist, innit? (Participant 20, former gang afliate).
Storrod and Densley (2017) identied a recent trend with London
gangs reaching out beyond their localized social networks to a larger
digital audience by posting ‘trap rapvideos (a form of hip-hop music
that focuses on drug dealing from ‘trap houses) on YouTube. They
studied videos from a number of different London gangs, including
videos of gang members going out ‘on holidayto seaside and rural
towns as part of developing county lines operations (Coomber & Moyle,
2018). The rst purpose that this served was to scare and warn off
existing local drug suppliers. One criminal justice professional stated:
A lot of these YouTube videos show these kids in London gangs being very,
very aggressive, very, very threatening so if you are some kid from Ipswich
watching YouTube, which is what they do, and you see the Chingford
Hall, one of their videos saying weve got guns, weve got knives, we do
this and then you hear on the street that theyre the ones coming out
selling the drugs, you are going to shit yourself and stay away So
denitely it is money motivated, the demands there, they supply it and the
lack of strong opposition in those areas to do it (Participant 16, criminal
justice professional).
The second purpose of these videos was to advertise their products to
potential local customers through promoting the ‘brand identityof their
drugs business. One former gang member argued that rap music served
to ‘programyoung people, drawing them in and provoking (‘gassing)
them into an overexcited state:
And the worse thing about it: theyve got their headphones into you,
twenty-four hours a day. As soon as they wake up, slap on their stereo.
They start programming. Especially when youre waking up every
morning; you put your stereo on and youre listening to the gang music.
When you leave your house, youve got your headphones in and all youre
listening to is, ‘Stab man this … ’ ‘Rob man that … ’ ‘Selling this, ‘Selling
that’ … And youre getting gassed, just being hooked (Participant 29, ex-
gang member).
The jury is out whether gang music is directly related to acts of
violence (Kubrin & Nielson, 2014; Stuart, 2019), but the participant
went on to describe how they felt that this creates a mind-set that is
advantageous to gangs because it recruits young people into the business
of the gang:
And then, all of a sudden, youve got this negative mindset where you
genuinely feel like to yourself ‘All I can do is sell drugs. I cant get a
job.And you think to yourself But, when you look at that person, you
think, ‘You havent applied for a job yet.‘Youve never, ever applied for a
job but you feel like you cant get one. Why is that? Because of the shit
that youre listening and programming yourself with is telling you
(Participant 29, ex-gang member).
2.10. The changing nature of gang territory and street capital in the age of
social media
Territory has always played an important role in the history of gang
life (Valasik & Tita, 2018) and the development of the internet has
provided a virtual space in which gang members can interact and foster
collective identity without the need for face-to-face interactions (Lauger
& Densley, 2018; Stuart, 2019). A decade ago, Pitts (2008) found that
London gangs used color codes and other conventional signals to display
their identity. With the advent of social media, gangs no longer needed
to representin person gang identity was now communicated online:
they all had their own colors, theyd wear bandanas and such like and
also grafti, youd get tags marking out areas and so on. Youve seen a
decline in both of those things because of social media, so you dont need
to, you dont need to walk around with a red bandana on writing
Chingford Boys E4 on walls everywhere because all you do is lm a grime
track which is the genre that they identify with at the moment and the
lyrics, when they are MCing the lyrics, are all about territories, access to
rearms, how much money theyre making, how they get the girl, how
theyre going to shank you if you come in their area and such like and
thats viewed by hundreds of thousands of people globally. They all know
each others faces, they all know whos who via social media so thats
why you dont see colors anymore(Participant 16, criminal justice
Gangs identify with a specic territory but this can be in a symbolic
rather than a physical sense. For example, one of the most well-
established gangs, the Beaumont Crew, strongly identify with the
Beaumont Estate but a regeneration of the estate has meant that very few
members physically live there today. It is a symbolic rather than an
actual reality and a ‘brand identityrepresenting their history and
As Fraser (2015) observed in Scotland, our respondents argued that
teenagers are less likely to hang aboutin the streets today than in years
past owing to the growth in technology like social media. A decade ago,
young people earned gang reputations and street capitalon the streets
via public acts of crime and violence (Densley, 2013; Harding, 2014).
Today, it seems new entrants into the gang game were more likely to
supplement any physical action with virtual content intentionally
curated to help build status and gain peer recognition. In other words,
social media have changed the routine activitiesof gang youth (Pyrooz
et al., 2015), to the extent that creating a continuous stream of content
(i.e., attractive posts and events) for broad consumption is now one of
the duties of gang membership. Such activity makes gang ‘territory
more uid than ever. However, physical territory often features in
gangssocial media content, participants argued, such as when members
lm themselves hanging out in expected surroundings or encroaching
upon rival territory and vandalizing their property (Densley, 2013).
Such action is unnecessarily risky for older gang members with banked
street capital, said our interviewees, but for younger gang members with
a point to prove, this is precisely the sort of content that could propel
them to instant stardom on the streets.
Still, even older gang members are sensitive to public insults (Lauger,
2012; Papachristos, 2009), thus if their status or turf is threatened or
insulted online and they cannot sufciently defend themselves by digital
means, then the sense of humiliation and shame could mount (Scheff &
Schorr, 2017), provoking a violent physical response. When actual
violence happens, social media provide bystanders with the means of
sharing video footage at no cost to themselves, which can lead to a vi-
cious circle of intergenerational violencesomething that was actually
occurring in Waltham Forest at the time of the study. Slightly over ten
years ago (Pitts, 2008), ghts between street gangs would have had a
limited number of bystanders and after a violent confrontation, gang
members would be able to portray the conict in ways that helped them
save face, avoid embarrassment and preserve their reputation. Social
media have changed this completely, with the possibility for almost
anyone to share and upload content instantly and bring a wider audience
to interact with gang territory.
3. Discussion
The current study examined the ways in which social media have
inuenced changes in street gangs and found a clear distinction between
‘digitalistgangs who embraced social media and ‘traditionalistgangs
who avoided social media. This is an important contribution because
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
there is an assumption in the existing literature that gangs have uni-
formly embraced social media (Moule, Pyrooz, & Decker, 2013).
Further, how gangs adapt to social media appears contingent upon their
level of maturity and evolution, with younger, less criminally involved
groups openly using social media as a means of advertising, while older,
organized crime gangs eschew it as attracting unwanted attention. The
ndings thus conrm our exploratory hypotheses about gangs differ-
ential adaption to social media. Thrasher (1927) was right, no two gangs
are just alike, including when it comes to social media use.
The ndings also compliment those from prior studies insomuch that
there is evidence that social media can promote a fearsome reputation
that will warn off competitors and create brand recognition of the illicit
goods and services that the gang provides to potential customers.
However, content posted online tended to feature junior gang members,
who, like professionals on LinkedIn or celebrities on Twitter, had the
most to gain from building their brand and signalingtheir reputation
(Densley, 2013). Senior gang members, by contrast, preferred to main-
tain a low public prole to avoid police attention (see also Disley &
Liddle, 2016).
The division between junior and senior gang members can be un-
derstood as two forms of value creation via social media as proposed by
Bechmann & Lomborg (2013). Since more senior gang members have
established their reputations and are receiving greater nancial re-
wards, their motivation to use social media appear to be more about
economic and socio-political value creation by exploiting others and
creating business revenue. Junior gang members have yet to establish
their reputations and are receiving smaller nancial rewards so for them
social media provide a means of value creation as sense making through
opportunities for self-expression, including shared social identity,
friendship and revenge.
4. Limitations
As always, there are a number of limitations to this study. Firstly, our
sample of gang youth is small and while the current study draws on the
perspectives of police ofcers, local authority workers, and others, the
information obtained from them is indirect data about how gangs use
social media. Different viewpoints provide an important check on val-
idity, but criminal justice professionals are not always best-placed to
speak to how social media has affected gangs. For ex-gang members,
there are typical problems of post hoc recall. The rest of our sample can
really only reveal perceptions relating to gangs social media use. Of
course, narratives about gangs do not always accurately depict the re-
ality of gang life (Lauger, 2012). Law enforcement in London has been
criticized for overinterpreting social media postings by youth who are
alleged to be gang-involved (Amnesty International UK, 2018), and
misunderstanding may be particularly acute for youth of marginalized
and racialized backgrounds (e.g., Patton et al., 2017a). Owing to our
approved ethical protocols and an obligation to keep study participants
safe, interviews with active or embedded gang members were not
permitted this time, but we hope future research can capture this vital
Secondly, the study is a 10-year transversal follow up study of gangs
in the same area of London as Pitts. (2008) study, rather than a longi-
tudinal study with the same individuals. The current study thus provides
a second snapshot in time, which coincided with the incorporation of
social media into gang life. This allows us to compare gang functioning
with and without social media, but it is obviously an imperfect design in
this sense.
Thirdly, our focus on gangs in one London borough may limit the
generalizability of results, not least because gangs are shaped by their
local and national environments. Again, no two gangs are perfectly alike
(Thrasher, 1927).
These limitations notwithstanding, we believe the current study
provides valuable insights for both academics and practitioners on gang
strategies of social media adaptation. It certainly raises many important
and empirically interesting questions about differential adaptations to
social media, which we hope will feature in future studies of gangs.
4.1. Implications for research and practice
One of the main implications for policy is that criminal justice and
related responses need to consider both ‘traditionalistand ‘digitalist
orientations of gangs towards social media. A senior police ofcer
described their response to monitor social media daily in order to
identify developing conicts between gangs:
We capture all the videos now, the gang videos we constantly monitor
social media. And its good for us to monitor those because if we see a
group on a particular patch talking about mouthing a group, you know,
the gang that there are next door, we can tell that theres going to be issues
and so we police accordingly. (Participant 9, pan-London criminal
justice professional).
They went on to describe how they responded:
We deploy mediators, we gate-keep the forms which the detectives send
through to us and then we send it out to mediators so they literally knock
on the doors and say guys, you know, the fall out, whats the issue? Were
not going to tell the police, its really about stopping the conict, so as long
as they dont stab each other, were well aware that they might still go out
and do all sorts of other activities but what were trying to do is stop
retaliatory stabbing or a fatality. (Participant 9, pan-London criminal
justice professional).
New Scotland Yard has subsequently set up a specialist unit to tackle
gang-related social-media activity that monitors social media and offers
mediation. Lane (2019) talks about the merits of such an approach in
detail, but a former gang member in our sample outlined how mediation
might be effective:
I think if there is mediation, someone from that area comes along to talk
because more times, they dont really hate each other until it becomes too
late and they actually build a hate for each other when someone has done
something to you. (Participant 27, former gang member).
Recent research suggests that when law enforcement and social
services monitor social media for warning signs of escalating tensions
between rival gangs, the escalation of violence can be interrupted
(Patton, Eschmann, Elsaesser, & Bocanegrad, 2016). Online gang ac-
tivities are also now used to add names to New Scotland Yards database
of purported gang members (the Gangs Matrix) (see Densley & Pyrooz,
2019). While this can help agging individuals who might benet from
mediation or social service intervention, civil liberties groups and
internet scholars caution that social media are becoming a means of
surveillance and intelligence gathering for control agents, with the
danger of activities on social media creating guilt by association (Lane,
Ramirez, & Pearce, (2018); Patton et al., 2017a). Lest we forget, making
a music video and uploading and sharing online is an everyday pursuit
for many young people. The majority of youth who do so are not gang
members or committing any crimes, yet they are increasingly rendered
as troublesome and subject to suspicion and censorship.
Still, the internet is here to stay and social media continue to be a
vital component for criminally-involved individuals and groups,
including gangs. This research contributes to our understanding of how
this happens by examining how gangs use and adapt to social media and
how this relates to gang member composition and gang evolution over
time. This knowledge is vital for gang scholars, law enforcement, and
youth safeguarding, and equally contributes to research on the impact of
computer use on individuals, groups, and society.
CRediT authorship contribution statement
Andrew Whittaker: Conceptualization, Methodology,
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
Investigation, Writing - original draft, Project administration, Funding
acquisition. James Densley: Conceptualization, Formal analysis,
Writing - review & editing. Karin S. Moser: Conceptualization, Formal
analysis, Writing - review & editing.
The authors acknowledge the support of the London Borough of
Waltham Forest, who funded the current study. They would also like to
acknowledge Tajae Tyrell, Len Cheston, Tirion Havard, Martyn Higgins
and Claire Felix-Baptiste who were involved in the original study.
Amnesty International Uk. (2018). Trapped in the Matrix. London: Amnesty International.
Ayling, J. (2011). Gang change and evolutionary theory. Crime, Law and Social Change,
56, 126.
Bacev-Giles, C., & Haji, R. (2017). Online rst impressions: Person perception in social
media proles. Computers in Human Behavior, 75, 5057.
Bechmann, A., & Lomborg, S. (2013). Mapping actor roles in social media: Different
perspectives on value creation in theories of user participation. 15 pp. 765781). New
Media & Society.
Boyd, D. (2014). Its complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
Bradley, S., Roberts, B. J. A., & Preston, W. (2019). Experimental evidence of observed
social media status cues on perceived likability. Psychology of Popular Media Culture,
8(1), 41.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative
Research in Psychology, 3, 77101.
Campana, P., & Varese, F. (2018). Organized crime in the United Kingdom: Illegal
governance of markets and communities. British Journal of Criminology, 58,
Campbell, A., & Muncer, S. (1989). Them and us: A comparison of the cultural context of
American gangs and British subcultures. Deviant Behavior, 10, 271288.
Centre for Social Justice. (2009). Dying to Belong: An in-depth review of street gangs in
Britain. London: CSJ.
Coomber, R., & Moyle, L. (2018). The changing shape of street-level heroin and crack
supply in England: Commuting, holidaying and cuckooing drug dealers across
‘county lines. British Journal of Criminology, 58, 13231342.
Decker, S. H., Melde, C., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2013). What do we know about gangs and gang
members and where do we go from here? Justice Quarterly, 30, 369402.
Densley, J. (2013). How gangs work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Densley, J. (2014). Its gang life, but not as we know it: The evolution of gang business.
Crime & Delinquency, 60, 517546.
Densley, J., & Peterson, J. (2016). Aggression between social groups. In B. J. Bushman
(Ed.), Aggression and violence: A social-psychological perspective (pp. 275289). New
York: Routledge.
Densley, J., & Pyrooz, D. (2019). The Matrix in context: Taking stock of police gang
databases in London and beyond. Youth Justice.
Disley, E., & Liddle, M. (2016). Local perspectives in ending gang and youth violence areas.
London: Home Ofce.
Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Felson, M. (2006). The street gang strategy. In M. Felson (Ed.), Crime and nature (pp.
305324). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fraser, A. (2015). Urban legends. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gambetta, D. (2009). Codes of the underworld: How criminals communicate. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Goldman, L., Giles, H., & Hogg, M. A. (2014). Going to extremes: Social identity and
communication processes associated with gang membership. Group Processes &
Intergroup Relations, 17, 813832.
Gottschalk, P. (2007). Maturity levels for outlaw groups: The case of criminal street
gangs. Deviant Behavior, 38, 12671278.
Hall, J. A. (2018). When is social media use social interaction? Dening mediated social
interaction. New Media & Society, 20, 162179.
Harding, S. (2014). The street casino. Bristol: Policy Press.
HM Government. (2018). Serious violence strategy. Available at:
Hogg, M. A. (2001). Social identity and the sovereignty of the group. A psychology of
belonging. In C. Sedikides, & M. B. Brewer (Eds.), Individual self, relational self,
collective self (pp. 121143). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
Irwin-Rogers, K., Densley, J., & Pinkney, C. (2018). Gang violence and social media. In
J. L. Ireland, P. Birch, & C. A. Ireland (Eds.), The routledge international handbook of
human aggression (pp. 400410). London: Routledge.
Irwin-Rogers, K., & Pinkney, C. (2017). Social media as a catalyst and trigger for youth
violence. London: Catch22.
Johnson, J., & Schell-Busey, N. (2016). Old message in a new bottle: Taking gang
rivalries online through rap battle music videos on YouTube. Journal of Qualitative
Criminal Justice & Criminology, 4, 4281.
Katz, C. M., Webb, V. J., Fox, K., & Shaffer, J. N. (2011). Understanding the relationship
between violent victimization and gang membership. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39,
Kim, J., & Park, H. S. (2011). The effect of uniform virtual appearance on conformity
intention: Social identity model of deindividuation effects and optimal
distinctiveness theory. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 12231230.
Klein, M., & Maxson, C. (2006). Street gang patterns and policies. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Kubrin, C., & Nielson, E. (2014). Rap on trial. Race & Justice, 4, 185211.
Lane, J. (2019). The digital street. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lane, J., Ramirez, F. A., & Pearce, K. E. (2018). Guilty by visible association: Socially
mediated visibility in gang prosecutions. Journal of Computer-Mediated
Communication, 23, 354369.
Lauger, T. (2012). Real gangstas. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Lauger, T., & Densley, J. (2018). Broadcasting badness: Violence, identity, and
performance in the online gang rap scene. Justice Quarterly, 35, 816841.
Lauger, T., Densley, J., & Moule, R. (2019). Social media, strain, and technologically-
facilitated gang violence. In A. Bossler, & T. Holt (Eds.), The palgrave handbook of
international cybercrime and cyberdeviance. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Martinez-Ruiz, M. P., & Moser, K. S. (2019). Studying consumer behavior in an online
context: The impact of the evolution of the world wide web for new avenues in
research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2731.
McLean, R. (2018). An evolving gang model in contemporary Scotland. Deviant Behavior,
39, 309321.
McLean, R., Robinson, G., & Densley, J. (2020). County lines: Criminal networks and
evolving drug markets in Britain. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Morselli, C., & D
etu, D. (2013). Crime facilitation purposes of social networking
sites: A review and analysis of the cyberbanging phenomenon. Small Wars and
Insurgencies, 24, 152170.
Moser, K. S., & Axtell, C. M. (2013). The role of norms in virtual work: A review and
agenda for future research. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 12, 16.
Moule, R. K., Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2017). Technology and conict: Group
processes and collective violence in the Internet era. Crime, Law and Social Change,
68, 4773.
Moule, R. K., Pyrooz, D. C., & Decker, S. H. (2013). From what the f#@% is a Facebook
to who doesnt use Facebook?: The role of criminal lifestyles in the adoption of the
use of the Internet. Social Science Research, 42, 14111421.
Moule, R. K., Pyrooz, D. C., & Decker, S. H. (2014). Internet adoption and online
behaviour among American street gangs: Integrating gangs and organizational
theory. British Journal of Criminology, 54, 11861206.
Ofcom. (2017). Communications market report: United Kingdom. Available at: http
Papachristos, A. (2009). Murder by structure: Dominance relations and the social
structure of gang homicide. American Journal of Sociology, 115, 74128.
Patton, D. U., Brunton, D.-W., Dixon, A., Miller, R. J., Leonard, P., & Hackman, R.
(2017a). Stop and frisk online: Theorizing everyday racism in digital policing in the
use of social media for identication of criminal conduct and associations. Social
Media and Society, 3, 110.
Patton, D. U., Eschmann, R., Elsaesser, C., & Bocanegrad, E. (2016). Sticks, stones and
Facebook accounts: What violence outreach workers know about social media and
urban-based gang violence in Chicago. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 591600.
Patton, D. U., Lane, J., Leonard, P., Macbeth, J., Smith, & Lee, J. R. (2017b). Gang
violence on the digital street: Case study of a south side chicago gang members
twitter communication. New Media & Society, 19, 10001018.
Patton, D. U., Patel, S., Sung Hong, J., Ranney, M. L., Crandall, M., & Dungy, L. (2017c).
Tweets, gangs, and guns: A snapshot of gang communications in detroit. Violence &
Victims, 32, 919934.
Patton, D. U., Pyooz, D. C., Decker, S. H., Leonard, P., & Frey, W. (2019). When twitter
ngers turn to trigger ngers: A sociolinguistic study of internet-mediated gang
violence. International Journal of Bullying Prevention.
Pinkney, C., & Robinson-Edwards, S. (2018). Gangs, music and the mediatisation of
crime: Expressions, violations and validations. Safer Communities, 17, 103118.
Pitts, J. (2008). Reluctant Gangsters. Cullompton. Willan.
Pyrooz, D. C., Decker, S. H., & Moule, R. K. (2015). Criminal and routine activities in
online settings: Gangs, offenders, and the Internet. Justice Quarterly, 32, 471499.
Pyrooz, D. C., Decker, S. H., & Webb, V. (2014). The ties that bind: Desistance from
gangs. Crime & Delinquency, 60, 491516.
Pyrooz, D. C., & Mitchell, M. (2015). Little gang and big gang research. In S. H. Decker, &
D. C. Pyrooz (Eds.), The handbook of gangs (pp. 2858). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Pyrooz, D. C., & Moule, R. K. (2019). Gangs and social media. Oxford Research
Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Pyrooz, D. C., & Sweeten, G. (2015). Gang membership between ages 5 and 17 years in
the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56, 414419.
Robinson, G., McLean, R., & Densley, J. (2019). Working county lines: Child criminal
exploitation and illicit drug dealing in glasgow and merseyside. International Journal
of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 63, 694711.
Roks, R., & Densley, J. (2019). From brakers to bikers: The evolution of the Dutch crips
‘gang. Deviant Behavior.
anchez-Jankowski, M. (1991). Islands in the street. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Scheff, S., & Schorr, M. (2017). Shame nation. Naperville. IL: Sourcebooks.
Seo, H., et al. (2014). Teenssocial media use and collective action. 16 pp. 883902). New
Media & Society.
Short, J. F., & Strodtbeck, F. (1965). Group process and gang delinquency. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
A. Whittaker et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
Storrod, M. L., & Densley, J. (2017). ‘Going viraland ‘going country: The expressive and
instrumental activities of street gangs on social media. Journal of Youth Studies, 20,
Stuart, F. (2019). Code of the tweet: Urban gang violence in the social media age. Social
Sudbery, J., & Whittaker, A. (2018). Human growth and development (2nd ed.). London:
Thrasher, F. (1927). The gang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Urbanik, M. M., & Haggerty, K. D. (2018). #Its dangerous: The online world of drug
dealers, rappers, and the street code. British Journal of Criminology, 58, 13431360.
Valasik, M., & Tita, G. (2018). Gangs and space. In G. Bruinsma, & S. Johnson (Eds.), The
oxford handbook of environmental criminology (pp. 839867). New York: Oxford
University Press.
Van Hellemont, E. (2012). Gangland online: Performing the real imaginary world of
gangstas and ghettos in Brussels. European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and
Criminal Justice, 20, 159173.
Whittaker, A., Cheston, L., Tyrell, T., Higgins, M., Felix-Baptiste, C., & Havard, T. (2018).
From postcodes to prots: Changes in gang activity in Waltham forest. London: LSBU.
Whittaker, A., Densley, J., Cheston, L., Tyrell, T., Higgins, M., Felix-Baptiste, C., et al.
(2020). Reluctant Gangsters revisited: The evolution of gangs from postcodes to
prots. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 26, 122.
A. Whittaker et al.
... Among young adults who participate in some form of street crime, 81% reported using social media, and most used it more often than their non-criminally involved counterparts ( As with other homicide offenders, gang members have employed the Internet and social media as information sources and for victim targeting, such as by obtaining an intended victim's home address (Patton et al., 2018). Social media may also increase the number of bystanders who witness violence (albeit online), which can inflame further conflict (Goel et al., 2018;Whittaker et al., 2020). ...
... Although members of gangs may use social media to communicate threats, many leaders of organized crime eschew such public forms of ICT; in some circles, the use of SNS for surveillance, evidence collection, and criminal prosecution is so well known that Facebook is referred to as "Fedbook" (Patton et al., 2019;Stuart, 2020;Whittaker et al., 2020). ...
Full-text available
The Internet and social media have grown increasingly relevant in homicide cases in recent years. Although several recent studies have analyzed the relationship between homicide and the Internet, there is a dearth of rigorous scientific research on the subject to date. Although a statistically rare event, Internet‐related homicide may be increasing, and forensic mental health professionals may experience growing demand for consultations in cases where the Internet and social media play a salient role. Understanding some of the ways in which homicide perpetrators have used the Internet can help to inform case formulation and threat assessments in these cases. This article reviews several key themes, including the use of the Internet as a source of information in the commission of homicide, its use to target victims, the spread of self‐publishing and multimedia sharing, conflict escalation through social media, and the threat posed by Internet extremist communities. Finally, suggestions are made to help inform future research regarding the relationship between homicide and the Internet.
... Nevertheless, the evolution of the conceptualization of gangs and the advent of the Internet point to the need to explore further the methodological framework employed and to provide an updated definition that can serve those scholars studying the social media footprints left by a specific gang. An examination of the use and of the meaning of this use of social media in the construction of the lifestyle of youth street groups should provide scholars with a better understanding of those gangs that have a social media presence (a possible reflection of the digital divide) and of the dangers criminal actors face when using social media (Trottier, 2014), allowing us to distinguish between 'traditionalists', who consciously abstain from using social media, and 'digitalists', who fully engage with them (Whittaker et al., 2020). In short, as recommend, gang researchers should pay increased attention to the online presence and interactions of gang members. ...
... Future research should also seek to explore those questions that are currently emerging from gang and youth studies, including gender and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) issues, but which have yet to receive much attention in the literature dedicated specifically to gangs and their use of social media. Finally, as recent studies have highlighted , future research needs to instigate a comparative approach, not only of territories but also of age and gender groups, which would, in turn, allow scholars to study how problematic youth is being affected by the digital divide (Whittaker et al., 2020). ...
Full-text available
Gang literature increasingly reflects the importance of social media in gang lifestyle, as gang members adopt new communicative practices. Yet, because of the multifaceted nature of online gang activity and the diversity of methodologies employed, a general overview of research outcomes is not easily achieved. This article seeks to remedy this by analysing academic studies of gang use of social media. A systematic literature review was conducted in Scopus and Google Scholar databases, which led to the identification of 73 publications. We then undertook a content analysis of each publication using an exhaustive evaluation model, comprising 20 variables and 71 categories. A bibliometric analysis was also performed to determine the structural characteristics of the research community that generates these publications. Our results point to an emerging universe of publications with different themes, methods, samples and ethical protocols. The challenges, risks and recommendations for future social media research with youth street groups are identified.
... Digital art -a useful tool for medical professionals to create medical illustrations researched by Appukuttan [19]. No two gangs are alike: The digital divide in the differential adaptation of street gangs to social media was researched by Whittaker [20]. New digital rights: Envisioning additional fundamental rights for the digital age is researched by Custers [21]. ...
Full-text available
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world has had a tremendous impact on people's lives. Not only the health sector, but the economic sector is also paralyzed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the affected countries is Indonesia. This pandemic has greatly affected the economic activities of the community. As a result, many types of businesses experience losses, as happened to MSMEs in the city of Cilegon. During this pandemic, technology has an important role, people prefer to buy everything they need through their smartphones. In the end, it was MSMEs that had utilized technology that were able to survive. The potential of using technology for MSME business development is very influential. Therefore, the role of technology at this time is very large, so the main focus is developing the business of MSME partners to be online-based by utilizing social media, websites and existing market places and developing the potential of each MSME partner who has been assisted.
... This study contributes to the dual literature on gangs and coercive control and to our understanding of responses to 'vulnerable' young women and girls by focusing on the views of frontline professionals who work with gangs, including gender specialists. This study was commissioned by a local authority in London because they felt that gang activity was evolving (Densley, 2013(Densley, , 2014Whittaker et al., 2018Whittaker et al., , 2020aWhittaker et al., , 2020b; This article draws specifically from the data related to young women. There have been several important studies with girls and young women (Auyong et al., 2018;De La Rue and Espelage, 2014), but because services have difficulties engaging them directly, their needs are not always identified and services are not commissioned to support them (Jury-Dada, 2018). ...
Full-text available
This article explores young women and girls’ participation in gangs and ‘county lines’ drug sales. Qualitative interviews and focus groups with criminal justice and social service professionals found that women and girls in gangs often are judged according to androcentric, stereotypical norms that deny gender-specific risks of exploitation. Gangs capitalise on the relative ‘invisibility’ of young women to advance their economic interests in county lines and stay below police radar. The research shows gangs maintain control over women and girls in both physical and digital spaces via a combination of threatened and actual (sexual) violence and a form of economic abuse known as debt bondage – tactics readily documented in the field of domestic abuse. This article argues that coercive control offers a new way of understanding and responding to these gendered experiences of gang life, with important implications for policy and practice.
... Even if much of what gang members do online is the same as the activity of non-gang members (Moule et al. 2013(Moule et al. , 2014, what makes gang members unique is their use of the internet to explicitly promote their criminal exploits and to insult and intimidate rivals (Johnson and Schell-Busey 2016;Pawelz and Elvers 2018). However, a recent study of gangs in London found there were "differential adaptations" to social media among gangs, including gangs that occupied the same geographic spaces (Whittaker et al. 2020). The authors attributed this to a "generation gap". ...
Full-text available
Focused deterrence is a gang violence reduction strategy that relies on a unique mix of strong enforcement messages from law enforcement and judicial officials coupled with the promise of additional services. At the heart of the intervention is a coordinated effort to communicate the costs and consequences of gun violence to identified gang members during face-to-face meetings and additional community messaging. In Philadelphia, focused deterrence was implemented between 2013 and 2016, and although an impact evaluation showed a significant decrease in shootings in targeted areas relative to matched comparison neighborhoods, the effect on targeted gangs was not universal, with some exhibiting no change or an increase in gun-related activity. Here, we employ data on group-level social media usage and content to examine the correlations with gun violence. We find that several factors, including the nature of social media activity by the gang (e.g., extent of activity and who is engaging), are associated with increases in the average rate of gang-attributable shootings during the evaluation period, while content-specific variables (e.g., direct threats towards rivals and law enforcement) were not associated with increases in shootings. Implications for violence reduction policy, including the implementation of focused deterrence, are discussed.
... Most of the Crips would limit the use of their mobile phones to playing music (videos) and communicating with other gang members, mirroring the sentiment documented by Whittaker et al. (2020: 2) that openly using social media would attract unwanted attention by law enforcement agencies. For youth growing up in 'the h200d', a reference to the local neighbourhood made popular by members of the Rollin 200 Crips (Roks 2019), older Crips members functioned as role models, but the mere presence of street-oriented elders in the local neighbourhood also provided youngsters with opportunities to make money. ...
Full-text available
Based on the results of two research projects from the Netherlands, this paper explores how street-oriented persons adapt and use digital technologies by focussing on the changing commission of instrumental, economically motivated, street crime. Our findings show how social media are used by street offenders to facilitate or improve parts of the crime script of already existing criminal activities but also how street offenders are engaging in criminal activities not typically associated with the street, like phishing and fraud. Taken together, this paper documents how technology has permeated street life and contributed to the 'hybridization' of street offending in the Netherlands-i.e. offending that takes place in person and online, often at the same time.
... The British government's newly adopted Serious Violence Strategy explicitly singles out social media for glamorising gang life, escalating gang tensions, and normalising weapon carrying (HM Government, 2018). Research in London, England, suggests gang members use social media to achieve expressive goals such as identity, friendship, and revenge, but also instrumental goals like group discipline and drug sales Whittaker, Densley & Moser, 2020). Future research is needed to see if this holds in Scotland. ...
In Glasgow, most violence is knife violence and this chapter presents an uncensored look at it, with graphic descriptions of bloody street fights, assault with a deadly weapon, torture, and incidents that result in severe injury. This chapter explores the cycle of gang violence and its consequences.
... The British government's newly adopted Serious Violence Strategy explicitly singles out social media for glamorising gang life, escalating gang tensions, and normalising weapon carrying (HM Government, 2018). Research in London, England, suggests gang members use social media to achieve expressive goals such as identity, friendship, and revenge, but also instrumental goals like group discipline and drug sales Whittaker, Densley & Moser, 2020). Future research is needed to see if this holds in Scotland. ...
This chapter introduces the four key participants in the case study—Leo, Raph, Mikey, and Donnie and their entry into the world of gangs, with an emphasis on their early (adverse) childhood experiences.
... The British government's newly adopted Serious Violence Strategy explicitly singles out social media for glamorising gang life, escalating gang tensions, and normalising weapon carrying (HM Government, 2018). Research in London, England, suggests gang members use social media to achieve expressive goals such as identity, friendship, and revenge, but also instrumental goals like group discipline and drug sales (Storrod & Densley, 2017;Whittaker, Densley & Moser, 2020). Future research is needed to see if this holds in Scotland. ...
This chapter reflects on the status of gangs and organised crime in Scotland, drawing on key findings from the book, with implications for research and practice.
Purpose Global evidence suggests that youth offending has reduced; however, this study aims to suggest a more complex picture, with youth crime potentially being displaced to the digital space. Historically, young people and crime have been synonymous with public spaces and being visible. A shift or expansion to online offending requires revision of how the justice and educational systems respond to youth offending. Design/methodology/approach A systematic literature review explored keywords related to age, digital offence or harm and criminal or harmful nature, using a search, appraisal, synthesis and analysis framework. Findings Three emergent areas of digital youth crime are discussed: digitally assisted crime, digitally dependent crime and digital harm. Practical implications The shift in youth offending requires response adjustment from prevention to detection. Opportunities may exist to disrupt or redirect youth before they offend. Further data specific to digital offending is needed. These findings seek to provide a possible direction for future research. Originality/value The concept of digital displacement of youth offending is progressively emerging. This paper examines types of offending categorised into three areas of interest.
Full-text available
Technology has ushered in a new era of intelligence-led and 'big data' policing, and police gang databases are part of this paradigmatic shift. In recent years, however, gang databases have come under intense public scrutiny. For example, Amnesty International and others argue that London's Gangs Matrix is discriminatory and violates data-protection laws. This article draws on evidence and examples from a wide range of sources-gang legislation, surveys of young people, police gang records and research on gangs-to put the Matrix controversy into broader context, and to adjudicate between common validity and civil liberties critiques of gang databases.
Full-text available
The aim of the current study was to understand how gangs have changed in the past 10 years since Pitts’ (2008) study in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The study undertook interviews with 21 practitioners working on gang-related issues and 10 young people affected by gangs or formerly embedded in them. Two focus groups involving 37 participants from key agencies then explored the preliminary findings and contributed to a conceptualization of a new operating model of gangs. The study found that local gangs had evolved into more organized and profit-oriented entities than a decade earlier. The new operating model rejected visible signs of gang membership as ‘bad for business’ because they attracted unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. Faced with a saturated drugs market in London, gangs moved out to capture drugs markets in smaller UK towns in ‘county lines’ activities. This more business-oriented ethos has changed the meaning of both territory and violence. While gang members in the original study described an emotional connection with their postcode, territory is increasingly regarded as a marketplace to be protected. Similarly, violence has moved from an expressive means of reinforcing gang identity to being increasingly used as an instrumental means of protecting business interests. The current study offers a rare opportunity to gain a picture of gangs at two time periods and contributes to work on the contested nature of UK gangs and renewed interest in gang evolution. These findings have important implications for local authorities and criminal justice agencies who need to address the profit motive of gang activity directly.
Full-text available
Based on ethnographic fieldwork and a content analysis of secondary sources, the current study presents an in-depth case study of gang evolution. We chart the history and development of the Dutch Crips, from playgroup origins in the 1980s to criminal endeavors in the 1990s, to its rebirth as an Outlaw Motorcycle Gang in the 2000s. At each evolutionary stage, we examine the identity of the group, its organization, the nature of its criminal activities, and branding. We highlight how, over 30 years, the Crips constantly reinvented themselves to meet their members’ age-defined needs and to attract future generations to the group. © 2019, © 2019 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
Full-text available
Street-level drug markets have traditionally been understood as operating predominantly at a local level, and there has been an absence of contemporary research that has challenged accepted thinking around their shape and organization. This article aims to outline an important development in the retail drug supply landscape, analysing a fast evolving and expanding drug supply model that involves 'outreach' selling from major supply hubs, direct to heroin/crack users in provincial satellite areas. Drawing on a mixed method approach analysing heroin/crack markets in six English locales, we explore how so-called 'county lines' drug dealing manifests in these spaces. Findings suggest that distinctive supply practices including 'commuting', 'holidaying' and 'cuckooing' have emerged and that out-of-town dealers regularly exploit vulnerable populations in order to maximize economic gain in these new 'host' drug markets.
This brief sheds light on evolving drug markets and the county lines phenomenon in the British context. Drawing upon empirical research gathered in the field between 2012-2019 across two sites, Scotland’s West Coast and Merseyside in England, this book adopts a grounded approach to the drug supply model, detailing how drugs are purchased, sold and distributed at every level of the supply chain at both sites. The authors conducted interviews with practitioners, offenders, ex-offenders and those members of the general public most effected by organised crime. The research explores how drug markets have continued to evolve, accumulating in the phenomenon that is county lines. It explores how such behavior has gradually become ever more intertwined with other forms of organised criminal activity. Useful for researchers, policy makers, and law enforcement officials, this brief recommends a rethinking of current reactive policing strategies.
The use of the Internet and social media among gang members is a topic of growing interest for scholars. Research indicates that gang members use the Internet for delinquent purposes like threatening peers, developing violent/criminal identities, and recruiting new members. Less is known about if or how online content fuels conflicts with other gangs and produces violence. Such content may parallel confrontations in physical space, which can lead to violence, or it may be detached from real-world consequences, as virtual settings foster fiction rather than reality. The few existing conceptual and empirical models that explain the connection between Internet use and gang violence rely on ideas from research in physical rather than virtual space. These models cannot account for some important nuances about how gang members interpret online threats and respond accordingly. In response, this chapter applies general strain theory to incendiary online content that is produced and encountered by gang members to anticipate when and why it facilitates violent behavior. Threatening or insulting online material becomes a strain that is more likely to produce violent behavior when it is (a) seen as unjust, (b) seen as high in magnitude, and (c) associated with low social control and (d) creates pressure or incentive for criminal coping. The chapter further examines how strains intersect with social, cultural, perceptual, and situational dynamics to create motivations for violence.
Using an affordances framework, we consider how increased visibility afforded by social media impacts the criminal justice process. The use of social media as criminal evidence is a development that particularly impacts low-income populations of color already under heavy surveillance. Content analysis of seven gang indictments filed by the District Attorney (DA) of a large U.S. city that included a total of 1,281 overt acts of conspiracy revealed that social media provided associative evidence that tied defendants to incriminating content and to each other. We find that law enforcement’s access to evidence expands through socially mediated visibility (SMV), and that social media affords prosecutors new tools to define and leverage defendants’ associations as con-victable criminal charges. This article explores the possibilities and problems of social media use in gang prosecution.
This article explores recent developments within the U.K. drug market: that is, the commuting of gang members from major cities to small rural urban areas for the purpose of enhancing their profit from drug distribution. Such practice has come to be known as working “County Lines.” We present findings drawn from qualitative research with practitioners working to address serious and organized crime and participants involved in street gangs and illicit drug supply in both Glasgow and Merseyside, United Kingdom. We find evidence of Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) in County Lines activity, often as a result of debt bondage; but also, cases of young people working the lines of their own volition to obtain financial and status rewards. In conclusion, we put forward a series of recommendations which are aimed at informing police strategy, practitioner intervention, and wider governmental policy to effectively address this growing, and highly problematic, phenomenon.
This article focuses on governance-type organized crime (OC). First, it explores two cases of illegal governance in Salford (Greater Manchester) and Derbyshire by relying on a wide range of qualitative data. Next, it presents a novel instrument measuring the strength of governance-type OC, the ‘Illegal Governance (i-Gov) Index’. This instrument is then included in a survey we conducted with Derbyshire Constabulary. This is the first systematic attempt to measure such crime in the United Kingdom. The article shows that the governance dimension of OC is present in the United Kingdom, although with varying degrees of sophistication and development. While comparatively rare, this form of OC is pernicious and highly destructive of communities. This article therefore calls for a systematic evaluation of such phenomenon across the United Kingdom, based on the i-Gov Index.