Gang Offending and Online Behavior

Scott H. Decker
Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Arizona State University

David Pyrooz
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice
Sam Houston State University

JRSA Forum. September 2012. Volume 30, Number 3.

Perhaps the most dramatic social change in the last 10 years has been the increased availability and use of the Internet. There are more than 2.2 billion Internet users worldwide (Internet World Stats, 2012), and it is estimated that three quarters of the U.S. population has Internet access (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 2011). The introduction of Web 2.0 and the widespread use of social media have changed the way people access and use the Internet. It is reported that there are more than 800 million Facebook users worldwide, with more than 155 million of them in the United States (Internet World Stats, 2012).

Given the widespread use of web applications facilitated by Web 2.0, it is not surprising that offenders use the Internet. Technology is agnostic with regard to purpose; certainly advanced technology can facilitate new crimes and enhance the ability to commit more traditional crimes. New crimes facilitated by the Internet include such activities as stealing digital properties, cyber bullying, online sexual predation, and cyber attacks that involve the use of viruses. More traditional online crime includes the use of Web sites to sell illegal goods, threaten violence, and in some cases promote membership and activities in extremist groups. While some attention has been focused on the use of the Internet, particularly social media, to promote the cause of extremist groups (Corb, 2011; Dawson & Hennebry, 1999; Weimann, 2004; Zanini & Edwards, 2001; Zhou, Reid, Qin, Chen, & Lai, 2005), this research is still in its infancy. Even less attention has been focused on the use of the Internet by gang members (Decker & Pyrooz, 2011; King, Walpole, & Lamon, 2007; Knox, 2011; Morselli & Deécary-Heétu, 2012; Womer & Bunker, 2010). While some speculation about the use of the Internet to advance the criminal interests of gangs has appeared in the popular press (Gogolak, 2012), there is little direct evidence about this. The research that does exist is largely descriptive, built on small convenience samples, and speculates broadly about how gang members use the Internet. In short, we simply don't know how gang members use the Internet for criminal and noncriminal purposes, and what can be done to respond to such use.

Gangs and Online Behavior
It is important to understand whether the heightened involvement in crime by gang members also occurs in their online behavior. One of the most strongly supported findings regarding gang membership is what has been termed the "enhancement hypothesis." During periods of gang membership, individuals show a significant spike in criminal behavior that declines once they have left their gang (Krohn & Thornberry, 2008). This finding has been termed "invariant" across samples (Pyrooz & Decker, 2012) because it is observed in so many different settings and for so many different gangs. But we don't know if gang members engage in criminal behavior online. It is important to distinguish between criminal and non-criminal online activities, as the use of the Internet has become normative across social groups in the United States with the narrowing of the digital divide. This is particularly true for gang members whose ages are consistent with the age of increased use of the Internet, especially social media sites.

New Light on Gang Member Use of the Internet
As part of a larger project to examine how individuals involved in crime use the Internet, we conducted in-person interviews in five cities: Cleveland, Fresno, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Louis. In Cleveland, interviews were conducted with individuals participating in an outreach worker program. In Los Angeles and Phoenix, interviews were conducted with participants in programs designed to ease the transition out of gangs and crime. In St. Louis, we interviewed individuals on probation and parole. Interviews in Fresno were conducted in the county jail. In all, 585 interviews were completed and individuals were classified as current gang members, former gang members, or non-gang members. Roughly 80% of each group was male, and the average age of current gang members (25) was younger than the average age of former gang members (28), but older than that of nongang members (23). Hispanics were the predominant ethnic group, varying from 61% of the current gang members to 51% of former gang members and 37% of non-gang members.

About 80% of each group reported using the Internet, ranging from 78% of current gang members, 79% of former gang members, and 81% of non-gang members. (In the discussion that follows we have excluded individuals who report never having used the Internet.) The non-criminal online activities were very similar across the groups. The most prevalent online activity was viewing YouTube videos, with between 85% and 90% of the members of each group reporting that they did this. There was also extensive use of social networking sites among the members of the three groups, with more than 80% of each group reporting that they used social network sites. Facebook was the most popular of these sites, with more than two thirds of those who used social networking sites reporting that they used Facebook. Roughly one in five (21%) of non-gang members used Twitter, 15% of current gang members, and 11% of former gang members. Because of its role in flash mobs, Twitter has received a good deal of attention. These findings tell us that the members of our sample look a lot like the rest of the U.S. population in their legal use of the Internet; however these findings don't tell us anything about participation in online crime.

In order to measure involvement in online criminal activities, we asked respondents about their participation in eight forms of online crime over the prior six months. The online crimes included:

  1. Illegally downloading movies, songs, or software.
  2. Selling stolen property online.
  3. Conducting drug sales via the Internet.
  4. Harassment.
  5. Coordinating assaults online
  6. Searching online to find targets to rob or steal
  7. Uploading deviant videos (typically of fights).
  8. Assaults that took place in the street that were motivated by an online communication.

A higher percentage of gang members reported participating in most of the offense types. The differences were most pronounced for illegal downloads, uploading deviant videos (typically fights and gang activities), and assaults on the street that were precipitated by online activities. In addition, we compared the overall prevalence of online offending across the three groups, where a "1" was assigned to anyone who answered "yes" to any of the eight questions, and a "0" was assigned to anyone who answered otherwise. We found that 43% of current gang members committed an offense online in the last six months, compared to less than one third of former and non-gang members. These differences were statistically significant, indicating that they were not due to chance alone.

Conclusions
Over the course of the past 10 years, Internet use has penetrated new groups, created new activities, and changed old ways of behavior. It is clear that offenders and the groups they offend in are using the Internet to further criminal activities. Gangs have been a part of these changes as well. Our study of gang, former gang, and non-gang members in five cities found that Internet use was widespread among these three groups. All three groups reported that they used the Internet to shop online, view YouTube videos, and use social network sites such as Facebook. Gang members participate in criminal acts at elevated levels during their time as a gang member. In comparing gang members to non-gang members and former gang members, it is clear that the impact of gang membership on crime also holds for online criminal activities. Gang members were involved in all eight crime types at a higher level than the other groups. In addition, their overall involvement in these crime types was significantly higher than the other groups, nearly twice as high.

Figure 1. Internet Use and Online Offending by Gang Membership Status

Responding to the increased involvement of gang members in illegal online activities should become an important priority for law enforcement. While monitoring such activities poses challenges, the openness of many aspects of online behavior creates opportunities for using the Internet as an important source of information for both crime prevention and prosecution. Efforts to prevent gang membership and to hasten its end will not only reduce criminal activity on the street, but on the Internet as well. Some work is already being done in this regard; for example, the Google SAVE Conference illustrates a number of ways the web can be used to help prevent the use of the web by criminal groups.

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