Chicago's Gang Violence Fueled Through Social Media

PHOTO: The streets of Chicago are a bastion of gang violence.
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Social media has helped launch revolutions and bring down government regimes, but these incredibly powerful tools are also helping to keep the streets of Chicago bloody.

ABC News recently hosted a summit, "Hidden America: Don't Shoot I Want To Grow Up." It was moderated by World News anchor Diane Sawyer and ABC News correspondent Alex Perez and brought some of the city's gang members, former gang members, victims and community organizers together to talk about the spread of gang violence, why it happens and how to stop it.

Most recently, 24 people were shot in Chicago last Saturday. The Chicago Police Department told ABC News 16 of the 24 shooting victims were affiliated with gangs.

Gang members, some of whom are aspiring rappers, often use Facebook, Twitter, Hipstar, MySpace, Youtube and other social media outlets to spread inflammatory messages and encourage rival gangs to respond. Police officers have even found password-protected, gang-related websites that are used to recruit members, inform members about meetings or parties and even commit crimes, according to the Chicago Crime Commission.

Current and former gang members at our summit said they send out taunting tweets, snide posts and homemade "diss" music videos to promote a tough image, make tensions rise between rival gangs and incite violence.

TG, a former member of the gang, Four Corner Hustlers, and a participant in the summit, said social media played a significant role in fueling gang rivalry.

"If I make a video about somebody else, everybody is going to watch," he said. "I get on Facebook, put up a status, somebody is somebody's friend. If I get on Twitter, I make a tweet, somebody is going to whisper to that person, 'did you seen what happened?' I get on Instagram, take a picture of another person in the hood that I am in tour with, it's going to make me want to stay real hip-hop."

Young rappers who can't afford to make expensive music videos use a personal camera or a phone camera to record a video and post it on YouTube. Often these videos feature young men brandishing guns and thick wads of cash, as they rap about murdering their rivals. The reason, TG said, is because gangs want "this to escalate somewhere."

"It was just ... trying to make something big out of something small, and [social media] play a real big role," he said.

Tio Hardiman, the director of the anti-violence group CeaseFire Illinois Cure Violence, said social media is used as bullying tactic.

"[Gang members] worried about what their peers are going to think about them if they get punked down in the social media, and social media has led to a lot of killings in Chicago," he said. "What happens with Facebook and Twitter, you can say the wrong thing and you don't know who's going to shoot you."

Hardiman said he has experienced situations where young men have been shot over the "pettiest of reasons," peer pressured into protecting their own.

"I've seen people get shot because somebody was throwing a water balloon," he said. "What happens in most cases when these young men take a vow to be a part of a gang they take a vow to protect their brothers. No matter what the circumstances may be, no matter what the risk may be as well, so what they're talking about retaliating over is anything."

CeaseFire, which recently adopted a new moniker, Cure Violence, was one of the community-based organizations that participated in the ABC News summit and helps rival gang members confront and work out conflicts. Their method is to treat violence like a virus that needs to be isolated before it spreads. Members, who are often ex-convicts or former gang members, are called "violence interrupters" and work to bring people together from opposing sides.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, who founded CeaseFire in 1995, said that since implimenting the program in Chicago, there has been at least a 40 percent drop in shootings.

"In all ways this is a disease," he said. "It meets the definition of a disease. It's not even a metaphor. It has characteristics, signs and symptoms, it has morbidity and mortality, it arrives in hospitals, it causes death, it has known and some unknown causes. It also is contagious by definition because it's transmissible."

Lamont Evans, a "violence interrupter" for CeaseFire, said rival gangs today are not only fighting over turf or territory, they are fighting for reputations and the opportunity for a big break. In short, it's a "beef over rap," he said.

"In my era, we beefed with guys probably five, six blocks away," Evans said. "Now with all the technology, you can beef with a guy in a whole other state... we can go onto Facebook and argue back and forth and then at the end of the conversation, we might say, 'OK, don't get caught in traffic.'"

Which means, "when I see you, I'm popping the f--- out of you," he added.

WATCH: How YouTube Videos, Tweets Can Fuel Gang Violence

The powerful and dangerous impact social media can have recently got a poster child in Keith Cozart, better known by his stage name, Chief Keef.

The 17-year-old controversial rapper from Chicago's South side, who spits beats about a murderous thug life, has had his career explode in the past year. His Youtube videos and an endorsement from 50 Cent helped catapult him to rap stardom. Keef now reportedly has a $3 million record deal with Interscope Records.

Chief Keef. Credit: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

Another South Side teen rapper looking for his big break was Joseph "Lil Jojo" Coleman. The 18-year-old aspiring rapper allegedly tried to start an online feud with Keef. Jojo's first rap, "3HunnaK," was reportedly a diss at Keef. It remixed Keef's hit song, "3Hunna" -- 300 is a reference to the street gang, Black Disciples -- while it promoted BDK, which stands for Black Disciple Killers. The "K" in "3HunnaK" also stands for "killer."

Jojo's video shows the young rapper and others pointing handguns at the camera, holding a stack of cash and having an array of bullets on a table. The video has over 400,000 views on Youtube.

On Sept. 4, Jojo was shot and killed in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood while riding on the back of a friend's bicycle after tweeting his location. Shortly after he was gunned down, a tweet from Keef's account said, "Its Sad Cuz Dat N---- Jojo Wanted to Be Jus Like Us #LMAO," the online slang for "laughing my a-- off."

The mocking tweet sparked wide outrage online, even from Keef's 275,000 followers. Keef followed up with a series of apologetic tweets, saying he had nothing to do with Jojo's killing and his account had been hacked.

"I didn't know him but he young jus like me. i can assure everyone that i had nothin 2 do with this tragedy tho. my twitter acct was hacked," Keef tweeted on Sept. 5.

"My prayers go out 2 Jojo's family on their loss," another tweet from his account said.

But the violence didn't end there. On Sept, 14, a violent brawl broke out at Jojo's funeral. Ameena Matthews, a former gang member turned CeaseFire "interrupter," said the fight made her "sick to my stomach."

"You know, we've seen a fight at a funeral, but we're talking knocking the casket over to get a video and throwing down, ups, and whatever... pushed the mother completely out the way, like she no longer existed, and that hurt me to my heart," Matthews said.

A photo of Lil Jojo lying in his casket was later leaked on Youtube.

Commander Kevin Ryan, head of the Chicago Police Department's Gang Enforcement Division, said social media "amplifies" conflicts between rival gangs, but is not the root cause of conflicts between them.

"I don't think it's going from Facebook to the streets. It's going from the streets to Facebook," he said. "It's not something social media has created, it's an amplification method."

Twenty years ago, Ryan said gang members might disrespect each other by writing graffiti on a wall or shouting obscenities on the street, and only people nearby might have heard it. But that is no longer the case.

"Now if you post something like that on Facebook or Youtube, the potential is that thousands and thousands of people see it," he said. "It's a reality of the world we live in...people using good technology for bad purposes."

Ryan declined to go into specifics about how his division operates concerning gang activity online, but said they do take social media into account when dealing with gang-related crime.

"We know people who are active, it's common knowledge," he said. "If the information is out there, we would look at it, but the majority of our work is done by boots on the ground and talking to people on the street."

The Chicago Police Department said Jojo's death is still an ongoing investigation and no arrests have been made. But the majority of gang-related homicides in Chicago go unsolved. According to the CPD's 2011 Murder Analysis Report, just 128 out of 433 of homicide cases were solved last year.

While the CPD is criticized for this, some officers told ABC News the problem is victims, witnesses or other people with information about a certain case are often unwilling to come forward or be interviewed. A common street phrase is "snitches get stitches." Sometimes police designate cases as "exceptional cleared closed," which means that police identified a suspect, but the victims or witnesses would not cooperate with prosecution.

In his rap hit, "I Don't Like," Chief Keef sings, "A snitch n----, that's that s--- I don't like." The video has over 17.3 million views on Youtube.

But Ryan said he trusts the information his officers are gathering while patrolling the neighborhoods over something they might see on social media.

"[What's on social media], it might be true, it might not be true," he said. "We have people in the field assigned to specific conflicts... That's our baseline understanding of what's going on and what's driving the conflict."

Since the burst of media attention surrounding the Chief Keef-Lil Jojo feud and Keef's Twitter debacle, some of hip hop's heavyweights have joined the discussion. Established rapper Common, a Chicago native, told Power 105.1's "The Breakfast Club" in a Sept. 19 radio interview that he wanted to host a "peace meeting" with Keef to talk about how they can bring people together to stop the violence in Chicago.

"I feel like we just got to sit 'em down and build with them. Talk to them, get some type of peace thing going," Common said at the time. "It's bigger than rap. Kids is dying. I would tell Keef and all of them cats, 'Man we got to sit down and figure out how we're going to get to a peace meeting.'"

Representatives for Common declined ABC News' request for an interview.

Ryan said there is no one answer for stopping inflammatory gang-related comments from spreading online, but he said his department is trying to be pro-active by offering programs, such as the CPD's Gang School Safety Teams, which works with local schools to talk to students and teachers about gang violence and conduct interventions.

CeaseFire's Tio Hardiman said young men involved with gangs see aspiring rappers like Lil Jojo and Chief Keef as role models and they need to work harder to get them to stop promoting violence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and instead send a more positive message.

"Lil Jojo's story is just one story probably out of thousands of stories ... we need to really work on trying to reframe a message in the social media networks," Hardiman said. "These young guys really don't know what they getting involved in. Words can kill. All the time... a lot of young people really need to take a good look at what they put out there in the social media."

ABC News' Alex Perez, Andy Fies, Candace Smith and Sarah Netter contributed to this report

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