It was once presumed that costs of Internet adoption were too great for gang members to absorb. They lacked the financial resources to access the Internet or the technological know-how to use it. That is no longer the case, which leads to two questions: What are gang members doing online? What are the responses to gangs online? The growing research on this topic indicates that gang members are online and using the Internet at a rate comparable to their peers. This occurs in the United States and abroad. Gangs do not exploit the Internet to its criminal potential, even though the law enforcement community suggests otherwise. This is most likely due to the low technological capacities of gang members. However, gang members do engage in higher rates of crime and deviance online than their non-gang peers. Gang members also use the Internet to posture, provoke, and project group power, particularly on leading social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which in turn allows activities occurring online to have ramifications for crime and violence offline. It is debatable whether online space is as important to gangs as physical space, but the Internet is undoubtedly a valuable medium to gangs. The potential for conflict and the posting of gang images has attracted the attention of law enforcement as well as researchers to document this activity. Platforms are being developed to anticipate the spilling of online gang conflicts offline. Since the Internet is a value-neutral medium that engages youth and young adults, it is anticipated that social media and the Internet will continue to appeal to gangs and gang members for the foreseeable future.
David C. Pyrooz and Richard K. Moule, Jr.
Gang violence and its impact on society is a well-documented phenomenon. Until recently, gang research has been mostly conducted by criminologists and sociologists. Some scholars consider gangs to be special or different from other delinquent or peer groups, warranting special attention and approach to the research. Although this approach has led to substantial advancements in knowledge about gangs, scholars’ attention to emergent ideas from fields of study beyond gang research can contribute to a multifaceted understanding of gangs and group processes of gangs. Specifically, intergroup communication theories and research are well suited to analyze and predict communicative implications of gang membership on gang activities and potential gang members. Intergroup communication theories posit that it is not individuals’ characteristics that shape their communication with others but their salient social memberships, such as being a part of a gang or a certain socioeconomic group; in turn, the communication provides information about why/how they identify with different groups in society. While gangs have been rarely discussed in communication contexts—with an exception of the work by Conquergood who engaged in this topic over two decades ago—some key intergroup communication issues are alluded to in a number of existing definitions of gangs. For example, Pyrooz defines a gang as “a group that hangs out together, wears gang colors or clothes, has set clear boundaries of its territory or turf, and protects its members and turf against other rival gangs through fighting or threats” (2014, p. 355). In another example, Klein and Maxson define street gangs as “any durable, street-oriented groups whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (2006, p. 4). These definitions indicate that gang membership is communicated by distinct markers—such as gang colors, clothing, or illegal activities—which help organize the gang’s system and making their identity distinctive from outgroups (other gangs and their surroundings). Also, gangs have clear boundaries for determining in/outgroup, and the shared group identity among ingroup members—rather than their individual identity—drives their communicative behaviors. Importantly, gangs are motivated to engage in risky behaviors to enhance their reputation and communicate dominance by fighting against other gangs or law enforcement (intergang conflicts). Examining these gang activities and processes as intergroup communication phenomena, as opposed to analyzing them in terms of individual and intragroup aspects, can complement gang research grounded in other disciplines and enhance understanding of why/how youths might decide to join gangs, obtain, and maintain gang membership.