Gang members use the internet for self-promotion and braggadoccio rather than to recruit new members or commit complex cybercrimes, according to a new study.
The study, which was completed by Sam Houston State University and funded by Google Ideas, found that gang members use social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Their rate of committing crimes or deviant acts online is 70% greater than those not in gangs, which mirrors their activity in street settings.
Gang members illegally download media, sell drugs, coordinate assaults, search social network sites to steal and rob, and upload deviant videos at a higher rate than former or non-gang members, the study found.
However, gang members are not engaging in intricate cybercrimes, such phishing schemes, identity theft or hacking into commercial enterprises, according to the study.
Gangs do not use the Internet for purposes instrumental to the group, such as recruiting new members, drug distribution, meetings or other organizational activities. Gang members recognized that law enforcement monitored their online behaviors, so they limited their discussion of gang activities on the Internet or social media sites. Only 20% of gang members surveyed said that their gang had a web site or social media page, and one-third of those were password protected.
Gang members recognized the importance of the Internet, but sites were used mainly as status symbols. Instead of exploiting the Internet for criminal opportunities, social media is used much like an "electronic graffiti wall," according to the study.
One-quarter of gang member said they used the Internet to search out information on other gangs and more than half watch gang-related videos online, such as fights or videos.
"Technology is part of the problem, but it is just as likely part of the solution," said David Pyrooz, a co-author.
"Criminal and Routine Activities in Online Settings: Gangs, Offenders, and the Internet" has been published in Justice Quarterly. The study was co-authored by Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State's College of Criminal Justice; Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; and Richard Moule, a doctoral student at Arizona State University. The study was based on interviews the authors conducted with 585 young adults in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Fresno, Calif.