In Effort To Curb Violence In Chicago, A Professor Mines Social Media

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Police crime tape marks the scene where a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed and an 18-year-old man was wounded in April in Chicago. The grim milestone of 500 homicides already passed this year in Chicago.

With the grim milestone of 500 homicides already passed this year in Chicago, police are grappling with a toxic mix of illegal firearms and gang culture.

And social media is added to that mix with gang-affiliated Facebook pages, Twitter handles and YouTube channels. Images of a kid getting beat down or worse are easy to find online.

Or you can look at social media as data to be mined, says Desmond Patton, a professor at Columbia University and a former social worker in Chicago. Patton is trying to create an algorithm that will monitor and identify who might be the next victim or shooter.

"I got involved in this work because young people were dying based on what they say online," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "That's horrible."

Patton also hopes this project will help identify young people who are vulnerable and provide them with support before they become involved in violence.

"I think if we can create tools that are in the right hands and to be able to get young people services and supports that they need in real time, then that can help to prevent deeper connections with the criminal justice system," he says. "We really want to figure out ways to get young people support that they need."


Interview Highlights

On how online arguments that escalate into violence begin

There are a number of things that happen. First, there may be a conversation that unfolds. On Facebook, what you're able to see is someone making direct kind of jokes or making fun of the individual that was killed. You're also able to see video. So for example, you may have a video with someone at the funeral, or they are expressing their love for someone that was killed, and then someone could make comments based on that video as well.

Emojis and hashtags are vastly important. And so, you may have someone use prayer hands and things like that in order to express grief, and then people can come behind that and then use more threatening emojis. Perhaps, the pistol or a devil face to kind of directly intervene in that grieving post as well. ...

How things have changed are now when you're making comments, you're making threatening comments, online you can say these things very quickly, very fast. And then those things are broadcast on these platforms, and you have individuals that you may not be connected with reading and interpreting your thoughts, right? So often times you may have comments that were perhaps, not intended to be threatening but are interpreted as threatening.

On how researchers interpreted social media to build a data set

For example, young people would spell the name of a street backwards. And the spelling of that street was emblematic of a known gang territory, but if you weren't from that neighborhood or had an understanding of that, then you would've missed what was actually being communicated.

We really try to take in the full picture. So we look at the conversation. We look at the events. We look at the tone of tweets. We look at the actual letters. We look at capitalization. We look at the ways in which punctuation is used. So we take a really in-depth, kind of anthropological, approach to understanding what's happening.

Once we were able to get that deep understanding, then I pass that information on to our data scientists, and they are able to then develop tools that can detect instances of aggression and grief. And we're able to identify those two things because they were the most prominent themes in our in-depth look at the language and the context in the tweets.

On how this project could have helped Gakirah Barnes, a gang member killed in Chicago

She was a very well-known gang member on the South Side of Chicago. One of the things that has been said about her is that she was this tough individual that was willing to kill at the drop of a hat, and she allegedly had up to 20 bodies associated with her by the time she was 17 years old. But when we dig deeper into Gakirah's tweets, she was like any other kid. She was experiencing trauma and grief on a day-to-day basis, and she expressed a lot of pain associated with that grief.

So this is not to negate the fact that she may have engaged in some very harsh activities, but she was a child. And she had childhood experiences that rocked her to her core. (Including having close friends who were shot or killed.) So when these situations happen she would go to Twitter and say, you know, "The pain is unbearable. People don't understand my pain." What if we understood her pain? What if someone would've saw it and said, "Wow Gakirah, you're going through a lot right now, let's talk about it."

And there have been some instances in various media outlets where people tried to communicate with her. But I wonder if they were able to bring in this insight about her deepest, most emotional experiences, if they knew that. Instead of looking at her as a gang member, looked at her as a young woman that was experiencing trauma and pain, how would that communication be different? So I just think that social media gives us an opportunity to really dig deeper into these experiences.

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