'Cyberbanging': Personal attacks online contributing to Chicago gang violence

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - There’s a new war zone in Chicago that starts on the Internet and then spills into the streets.

FOX 32’s Larry Yellen digs into a violent trend called "cyberbanging," and how its putting Chicago at the tipping point.

Shaquon Thomas was a Chicago rapper known as "Young Pappy." His YouTube video "Killa" got more than 2-million views.

Now, prosecutors point to "Young Pappy's" life and death when describing something called "cyberbanging," which are personal attacks on social media that contribute to gang violence on Chicago's streets.

“That's four dead. A 17-year-old, a 19-year-old, a 22-year-old, a 28-year-old,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon.

Fardon cited four deaths linked to the taunts and insults Thomas or others posted on social media.

“Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Petty disputes and trash talk that escalates over social media with sometimes fatal consequences,” Fardon said.

The killings began in February of last year when an opposing gang targeted Thomas, but they only wounded him. However another man, Markeyo Carr, was killed.

The next day, Thomas tweeted, "I'm still here."

Five months later, Thomas was shot at again at a bus stop. This time, the bullets struck  an innocent bystander, photographer Wil Lewis, and Alderman Joe Moore saw it happen.

“Most of the gang disputes have nothing to do with drug sales, or gang territory, and everything to do with settling personal scores. Insults that are hurled on the social media,” Moore said.

Over the next year, Thomas posts two new videos taunting his enemies, saying they don’t know how to shoot.

Shortly after the second video, Thomas was shot and killed. A week after that, a man named Clifton Frye was also shot and killed. He had posted comments about Thomas on his own Facebook Page.
Professor Desmond Patton interviewed 40 Chicago gang members about their social media habits. He says their anger is often greatest after postings about people who have been killed.

“So if you're making fun of someone that was killed, and you are, you either post their picture upside down, or you're making some challenging comments about them, that is a real trigger for youth in Chicago,” Patton said.

Patton believes the ‘cyberbanging’ itself only facilitates violent tendencies, and that solving violence still depends on solving the social issues that plague impoverished neighborhoods.

Patton also says ‘cyberganging’ is more likely to trigger violence because it reaches so many people.

Alderman Moore agrees.

“In the old days, an insult would be heard by whoever was in earshot. Now it can be read by, as you said, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people. And I think that kind of incites the violence even more,” Moore said.

Patton's research focused on Chicago, but he says it's likely that ‘cyberbanging’ is having a similar impact in other U.S. cities.

Professor Patton is now trying to identify certain words or phrases that show up before gang members turn violent. He says that's a first step toward intercepting the shootings that could follow.