In a FOX 32 special report, we go to the front lines of the effort to stop social media from fueling violence in the city.
The Chicago Crime Commission just last month warned online beefs are triggering bloodshed in the streets.
It's all about respect, proving your street cred and flaunting your power. For some, social media is a stage. For others, it's a way to monitor conflicts, making sure they don't escalate.
Gangs used to take their messages to the street, spray-painting their symbols or threats on walls. Now, you would be hard pressed to find that kind of graffiti. Besides, you can get a bigger audience online.
“The emotions intensify with all the people that are able to see what's put out there,” said Mike Falardeau of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
Falardeau is a social media analyst, part of a 6-person team for the Cook County Sheriff's Office. Every day he goes through anonymous tips and works with investigators to monitor public profiles for things like bullying and school threats. He says when rival gangs communicate online, the post can take on a life of its own.
“An individual gang member isn’t going to be disrespected on social media and not respond in some way either through social media face-to-face or both,” Falardeau said.
Law enforcement doesn't just monitor threats, but black market sales using social media.
"We were kind of surprised. We didn't know these secret groups existed on Facebook,” said Anthony Riccio, CPD Organized Crime Chief.
Last year, Chicago police were able to buy 18 illegal guns and $47k worth of drugs. Officers arrested more than 50 people.
"It's not visible on someone's Facebook page. You have to be invited in to it. And the groups are so tight that they actually required people to vouch for you,” Riccio said.
14-year-old Endia Martin was shot and killed on the South Side after a fight over a boy escalated online. Last month, the shooter was sentenced to at least 5 years behind bars.
Columbia University professor Desmond Patton is studying to understand the online language used here in Chicago.
“Young people in Chicago in particular are using social media to grieve and memorialize the people who are in their life and then over time their posts become more aggressive an threatening,” Patton said.
He and his team at "SafeLab" examine keywords, emoji’s and hashtags used in conversation.
“Use information from posts, bios and peer networks to create algorithms and identify the language automatically,” Patton said.
Once the algorithms are created, they will pass them along to community groups to help prevent more violence.
For his part, Fardleau says he and his team are dedicated to staying on top of the newest platforms and the latest tips to make us all a little safer.
“A lot of us are using that knowledge to try to prevent those things and try to help try to do things the right way,” Falardeau said. “So the good side has grown as well as the dangerous side.”