By Andrew Whittaker, James Densley and Karin S. Moser (2020)

Computers in Human Behaviour, 110.

Review written by Dr Nina Maxwell

What question does this study focus on?

This article focuses on the question of whether there were differences in gang member use of social media at the individual level (younger members versus older members), and the group level (less established gangs versus more established gangs) in Waltham Forest, London.

How did they study it?

This was a mixed methods study that included two stages of data collection. First 

qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted with ex-gang members, gang-affected young people, police officers, criminal justice workers, local authority workers, including community safety, education, early help and terrorism prevention, and voluntary sector grassroots workers. Second, preliminary findings were tested with two focus groups comprising stakeholders from local government agencies, criminal justice and grassroots workers. Due to ethical issues surrounding interviewee and researcher safety, the study did not include active gang members.

What did they find?

The article found that gangs differ in their use of social media. Broadly speaking, older members with established reputations tended to avoid social media to reduce the risk of detection by the police. Younger members, with less established reputations were more likely to embrace social media to build their reputation and status. Findings showed that gangs have moved away from open platforms that could be used for police surveillance such as Facebook and towards end-to-end encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp. Applications such as Snapchat are also being used to advertise and sell drugs as these tools automatically render photographs and messages inaccessible after a set time period. For those gangs that used social media, some were using apps with GPS tracking, such as Find MyiPhone or Find My Friends to increase their monitoring and control of younger members, for example by requesting photographic and video evidence of their activities. 

What are the implications?

While gangs may differ in the extent to which they use social media, even those gangs who shun its general use were aware that it could be weaponised against them or they could use it against their competitors. The authors conclude that where police and social workers monitor social media to identify the warning signs for conflict, this can be used to effectively de-escalate situations before serious violence occurs. This article highlights that service providers should be aware that younger gang members may be subject to constant monitoring and control by older gang members using social media. Such surveillance can limit young people’s opportunities to seek help.  

Review written by

Dr Nina Maxwell