Twitter is a social medium that users go to for a variety of things, from gleaning knowledge on pressing societal issues to kicking the bobo. However, it has also been used by gang members to beef with each other. This phenomenon known as “cyber banging” was brought to the forefront of public conscience during the highly-publicized, gang-fueled spat between the cliques of Chicago rappers Chief Keef and Lil’ Jojo. The result was Lil’ Jojo’s untimely death when he was shot in a drive-by shooting. Since, young gangsters across the nation use Twitter and other sites as a veritable e-graffiti wall, where they go to promote their own set or pop digital shots at rivals. Seemingly, deaths have come as a result of the cyber banging.
Columbia University assistant professor of social work Desmond Patton has committed the bulk of his life in academia to studying youth violence and trying to formulate answers. His research has led him to collaborate with other analysts to develop an algorithm “that can read tweets and determine the likelihood that the 140-character messages will lead to physical violence,” according to VICE.
If you aren’t hip, an algorithm is simply a procedure or formula used to solve a problem. They are used on social media sites to tailor your account to your preferences by filtering everything you do. Pertaining to his algorithm, Patton told VICE:
Really what we’re trying to do is say, “Hey, these are some conditions and factors that you should pay attention to, let’s teach a machine to be able to pick up on these particular conditions, and then be able to detect when they’re happening online.” If we can automate that process, then perhaps we can develop ways of getting that information back to the community—to social workers, violence prevention workers, people who are really hands-on in this space. Maybe we can give you an alert on your phone or computer, and so when Chris or John are in a high-tension back-and-forth on Twitter, you can call up John or Chris and say, “Hey, come in for a minute.” Or I can go to you and you can interact in their space before the behavior that happened online becomes a criminal thing.
Will Patton and his team be able to decode gang lingo? Only time will tell. If they are successful, tests will be run in Chicago and New York, two cities with healthy gang populations. When asked about whether or not this will be used as predictive technology to enact police action, Patton replied:
I think they’re already doing that. What we already know is that the police use social network analysis to identify high-risk individuals and groups in urban areas. What I’m proposing is to say, “Well let’s take a deeper look. OK, you think you know which users or individuals are high risk—well let’s really take a closer look at the language to make sure that what we’re seeing is not just violence, but could be other things.”
The issue is that, at face value, everything that comes from a black and brown person could be identified as being highly violent or aggressive. And it might be, but let’s take a deeper look. All I’m saying is, if we have an opportunity to do a more in-depth approach, why not do it—especially if we’re interested in an era of better community policing or building trust and relationships with black and brown communities around policing.
I’m always hearing the police saying, “Oftentimes we’re doing social work and we really want to prevent children [from entering] the criminal justice system.” Well, this might be a way to do that.