By Gena Jones
Nowadays, one click can take you to a dangerous place.
Rising crime rates nationwide and the expansive reach of social media has resulted in a potentially traumatic digital experience for users. Many social media platforms have become hotbeds for hate speech, misinformation, and, most notably, unregulated violent criminal content.
“I was just scrolling on Snapchat without realizing, and this guy that I knew from middle school had reposted it,” said Dakota Shelton “… it was just [the gunman] on Facebook Live and then a few seconds later he goes into an AutoZone, and literally as soon as he stepped in he shot multiple people.”
Shelton, a student at Tulane University, recalls gasping in shock at the clip of a live streamed mass shooting that happened in Memphis earlier this year. After checking in on her parents who were in downtown Memphis at the time, she had to get away from social media for the rest of the day. “You could see bodies falling,” she recounts, shaken by the memory.
It doesn’t take hours worth of deep dive searches on the internet to find violent content. Users just looking to check in on friends or laugh at jokes come across disturbing videos just like Shelton did everyday. While the initial post is usually made by an offender, it’s become common for audiences to engage with, repost, and boost violent posts — making it all the more likely for unsuspecting users to be one swipe away from gun violence content.
The New Orleans Police Department plays its part in monitoring gun crimes in the city that make their way onto the internet. “A lot of what we see is either they’re committing a criminal act using social media or they’re bragging about a previous incident that they already were a party to” remarks Lieutenant Ernest Luster of the NOPD, “Any threats made against schools or games… that information is disseminated [to us] and we do research to find out who these parties are and then we take the investigation from there to see if we can, of course, take some law enforcement action.”
These incidents of gun violence have developed beyond just a want for guns and an intent to harm. Now, crime is fueled by a desire for the attention and online clout that comes along with violent behavior.
Dr. Reginald Parquet is a Tulane professor, licensed clinical social worker, and has also served as Superintendent of Louisiana’s largest juvenile correctional center. He recognizes a pattern of logic and a desire for respect among the youth of New Orleans who feel the need to, as they describe it to him, ‘stay strapped’.
“There is a culture in this city among fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year olds where they do in fact believe it is necessary for them to carry a weapon. Some of them do it for protection, some of them do it for predatory reasons….and for a lot of them it’s also a part of who they are in terms of their own self esteem. It gives them a sense of importance,” said Dr. Parquet.
Just recently, two women were charged with a felony for their reckless use of firearms on the Pontchartrain Expressway in a video shared on Instagram.
“In the last few months, we did have an incident where two females posted themselves on the interstate firing a weapon randomly out, which could have injured innocent bystanders. That information was given to us through the Crime Stoppers tip line and as a result we were able to locate those two perpetrators and both parties involved were arrested for their behaviors on social media,” said Lieutenant Luster.
The reports of concerned users are a critical component of NOPD’s efforts to monitor violent criminal content online. Lieutenant Luster strongly encouraged users to report any harmful or potentially violent behavior to Crime Stoppers. “They can do that anonymously by several different avenues: by calling the -822-1111 number or go on crimestoppers.org and report it,” Luster shares “their information is totally anonymous and they won’t be involved at all and they can receive an award if the information proves to be true.”
The Pontchartrain Expressway incident was just another symptom of an ever-expanding cultural norm that desensitizes and encourages people to share violent criminal content online. Many of the videos that are re-shared by viewers boast hashtags like ‘#death’ and ‘#gore’ as a way to streamline the grisly posts to interested audiences. Gun use, even in self defense, is a sure-fire method of racking up views on social media.
“They’re using social media to brag about some of the things they do, even though these things are illegal and even though these things may get them arrested and charged,” said Dr. Parquet.
Online altercations are also a driving component of the issue. “The motive has never been social media related — it’s just that they use that as a tool to relay a message to whoever they’re having an issue with,” Lieutenant Luster adds.
But the problem is larger than just the online criminal activity in New Orleans.
The Uvalde, Texas gunman who targeted an elementary school in May shared pictures of guns and threatened to assault young women on social media prior to the massacre. The shooter who twitch-streamed his murder of innocent people in Buffalo, New York had made countless comments about his plans online. Neither of these posts were taken seriously until after the tragedies had already happened.
“We tried to really stray away from it as a conversation topic after it happened,” said Shelton “…it was scary and finding out about [the shooting] that way was even scarier.”
It’s become a uniquely American phenomenon where the intense wiles of social media clout clash with our country’s lack of gun control to ensue serious incidents of violence in reality. The government and social media platform executives have failed to take necessary measures to protect citizens and users from this rapidly evolving social oddity. There can not only be protection via convictions in the aftermath of posted crime. We must strive for prevention.
Both Dr. Parquet and Lieutenant Luster remarked that looking for answers to stop the spread of criminal content on social media is as ambitious as asking how to stop crime. “We know that we can’t. But we can put the message out…try to notify the media that this is how we were able to catch [an offender] to see if that will help prevent the behavior,” says Lieutenant Luster, who made it a point to attend community meetings and schools to speak to students about the “potential repercussions and consequences of their actions” on social media.
But the Lieutenant says that community outreach may not always work. “We know that for some people, that behavior doesn’t stop just because we told you that’s how we caught you.”
Any preventative measures taken must be done with diligence. A bot searching for key buzzwords and images will not always scope out potential dangers, and an expansive intelligence department dedicated to social media can still disproportionately surveil users of color. These efforts focus almost entirely on punishment of an individual offender, while eclipsing the societal systems that enable their reckless behaviors. Moving forward there must be mentorship, activism for antiracism, and an acknowledgement of misogyny to address the conditions that make crime and gun-ownership feel like a necessity for people.
“If you’re gonna do mentorship, it has to be in a way where there is a significant amount of involvement, you have to be willing to dedicate more time than just an hour or two a week in these communities, you have to be present there, you have to be a presence there,” said Dr. Parquet.
Moved by the subject, Dr. Parquet told the story of a boy he had worked with years before the infamous Magnolia Projects were redeveloped as Harmony Oaks. “There was this young man — his street name was ‘Be Stupid’ — that we watched grow from eight or nine years old; very bright young man. Sometimes he would even have to do his homework on the front porch, because inside the home his mother and her boyfriend were dealing drugs and having arguments all the time. He would literally try to do the right thing…”
When Dr. Parquet and the other mentors who worked with ‘Be Stupid’ returned when he was fourteen, they found that he had also began doing and selling drugs, as well as engaging in armed robberies.
They asked the young man, “Growing up you were engaged with and joining clubs at school, and we’d come visit you once a week. What happened?”
“Well,” the boy responded, “you all are here with me one day out of a seven day period, and the drug dealer is with me 24/7. He’s got more influence on me than you all will.”
What influence will the constant supply of violent content on social media have on the lives of people in reality?