Computers in Human Behavior 110 (2020) 106403
Available online 25 April 2020
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Full length article
No two gangs are alike: The digital divide in street gangs’ differential
adaptations to social media
, James Densley
, Karin S. Moser
London South Bank University, UK
Metropolitan State University, Minnesota, USA
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 prole, 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.
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 conrmed Thrasher’s “endless
variety of forms.” The question at the heart of this study is whether
Thrasher’s 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
benets or to shun them owing to the danger of exposure that can
backre. 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 Store—its
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: firstname.lastname@example.org (A. Whittaker).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Computers in Human Behavior
journal homepage: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/comphumbeh
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 afliations 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 Britain’s gang members have come under increased public scrutiny.
HM Government’s (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 lines” model of
drug distribution which describes the fact that today gangs trafc 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 ofcial 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 “complicated” social 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 ofcers 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 specically 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 identity—key dening
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 conict 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, inuenced its rela-
tionship with social media. Specically, we were interested in under-
standing whether there may be a ‘generation gap’ when it comes to
gangs’ social 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 ‘brand’ recognition 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 natives’ but also because they
are at a life stage when nding one’s 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). Teenagers’ need 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 identication 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 gap’ in gang members’ use 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).
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 specic use of social media
depends on the maturity of the gang and its evolutionary stage as well as
the gang member composition. We hypothesize specically 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
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
To elaborate on the hypotheses, less established gangs have a far
greater need to use social media for both “expressive” and “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 identication. 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.
2.1. 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 specically 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 ofcers 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 member’ to 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 “ties” to the gangs they had been involved
with (Pyrooz, Decker, & Webb, 2014). The study used the denition
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 conict with other, similar, gangs (Centre for
Social Justice, 2009, p.48). This denition was shared with all in-
terviewees to ensure perceptions of ‘gangs’ were 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 members’ participation 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 specic 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
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 themes—the 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.
Ethical approval was obtained from the rst author’s 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 proles) 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
identied 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 condentiality 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 identication are slim. Transcripts were care-
fully anonymized and, to protect respondents’ identities, only restricted
demographic information about the participants has been included.
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 identied as two types of adaptation to
social media. Whilst some were ‘digitalists’ who embraced technology as
a means of conducting business and developing the gang’s identity,
others were ‘traditionalists’ who 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 identied 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 prole 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,
conrmed this attitude towards social media:
No, no, social media denitely don’t 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 … we’re concerned
about your 13-year-old son and the mum says, my son’s not in a gang,
you’re 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 this’ and there’s her son, at the front, spliff in his mouth,
holding a knife, hood up, I’ll ‘F’ you up. (Participant 16, criminal justice
Of course, featuring in or sharing a YouTube video—even 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 ofcers
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 proles were open. And then they just, it just
all got shut down and then basically you’ve lost all that information so
it’s, there’s a period where they’re utilizing it, law enforcement catches up
to that, catches on, there’s a period when they’re like actually it works,
law enforcement is brilliant and then they change their use of it and they
don’t post stupid things on social media now (Participant 12, local
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
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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
It is important to not assume that gangs were adopting a ‘tradition-
alist’ stance simply because they were not tech savvy. The gang that best
exemplied 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 ofcers.
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 ofcers, which they could then use to intimidate
individual ofcers. This was conrmed by a senior police ofcer:
But the Mali Boys seem to have a business model and are a much more
professional outt. And that manifests itself in many different ways, such
as the intelligence collection they do on ofcers. So they try and intimidate
ofcers 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 media’s enabled people to communicate. I mean originally, it was
more around people using BBM to message people but it’s much more
sophisticated now so I’m just wary of that, every young person’s 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 … everyone’s 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
identied 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 Westwood’s
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 they’re selling. So it might be that
they’ve got some drugs that they want to sell and they might publish that
on Snapchat: ‘So this is what I’ve 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 mothering” but tantamount to remote con-
trolling (Storrod & Densley, 2017), makes it difcult 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 aren’t up to
date with the youngsters of today about what’s happening and going on …
There must be communication in some way, how they’re doing that is a bit
of mystery because if it’s, if you’re not being exposed or given that in-
formation you’re never going to know kind of thing (Participant 12,
criminal justice professional).
It’s trying to keep up with them, we’ll never be ahead of them, they’ll
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 difcult 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 prole
to avoid police attention. One participant stated:
Notably you don’t get the upper gang members in the pyramid featuring,
it’s 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 it’s all about respect (Participant 47, grass roots organization
It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 you’re not making
any money, so I think they’ve 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’,
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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, it’s materialist, innit? (Participant 20, former gang afliate).
Storrod and Densley (2017) identied a recent trend with London
gangs reaching out beyond their localized social networks to a larger
digital audience by posting ‘trap rap’ videos (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 holiday’ to 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 we’ve got guns, we’ve got knives, we do
this and then you hear on the street that they’re the ones coming out
selling the drugs, you are going to shit yourself and stay away … So
denitely it is money motivated, the demand’s there, they supply it and the
lack of strong opposition in those areas to do it (Participant 16, criminal
The second purpose of these videos was to advertise their products to
potential local customers through promoting the ‘brand identity’ of their
drugs business. One former gang member argued that rap music served
to ‘program’ young people, drawing them in and provoking (‘gassing’)
them into an overexcited state:
And the worse thing about it: they’ve 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 you’re waking up every
morning; you put your stereo on and you’re listening to the gang music.
When you leave your house, you’ve got your headphones in and all you’re
listening to is, ‘Stab man this … ’ ‘Rob man that … ’ ‘Selling this’, ‘Selling
that’ … And you’re getting gassed, just being hooked (Participant 29, ex-
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, you’ve got this negative mindset where you
genuinely feel like – to yourself – ‘All I can do is sell drugs. I can’t get a
job.’ And you think to yourself … But, when you look at that person, you
think, ‘You haven’t applied for a job yet.’ ‘You’ve never, ever applied for a
job but you feel like you can’t get one. Why is that? Because of the shit
that you’re 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
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 “represent” in person — gang identity was now communicated online:
‘ … they all had their own colors, they’d wear bandanas and such like and
also grafti, you’d get tags marking out areas and so on. You’ve seen a
decline in both of those things because of social media, so you don’t need
to, you don’t 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 they’re making, how they get the girl, how
they’re going to shank you if you come in their area and such like and
that’s viewed by hundreds of thousands of people globally. They all know
each other’s faces, they all know who’s who via social media so that’s
why you don’t see colors anymore’ (Participant 16, criminal justice
Gangs identify with a specic 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 identity’ representing their history and
As Fraser (2015) observed in Scotland, our respondents argued that
teenagers are less likely to “hang about” in 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 capital” on 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 activities” of 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
gangs’ social 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 sufciently 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 violence—something 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 conict 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.
The current study examined the ways in which social media have
inuenced changes in street gangs and found a clear distinction between
‘digitalist’ gangs who embraced social media and ‘traditionalist’ gangs
who avoided social media. This is an important contribution because
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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 conrm 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 “signaling” their reputation
(Densley, 2013). Senior gang members, by contrast, preferred to main-
tain a low public prole to avoid police attention (see also Disley &
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.
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 ofcers, 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
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
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 ‘traditionalist’ and ‘digitalist’
orientations of gangs towards social media. A senior police ofcer
described their response to monitor social media daily in order to
identify developing conicts between gangs:
We capture all the videos now, the gang videos … we constantly monitor
social media. And it’s 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 there’s going to be issues
and so we police accordingly. (Participant 9, pan-London criminal
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, what’s the issue? We’re
not going to tell the police, it’s really about stopping the conict, so as long
as they don’t stab each other, we’re well aware that they might still go out
and do all sorts of other activities but what we’re trying to do is stop
retaliatory stabbing or a fatality. (Participant 9, pan-London criminal
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 don’t 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 Yard’s database
of purported gang members (the “Gangs Matrix”) (see Densley & Pyrooz,
2019). While this can help agging individuals who might benet 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.
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