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As NBC Philadelphia recently highlighted in a three-part series, something very alarming is happening in the Philadelphia area these days. Young men get up in the morning, tune into social media for a few hours, and by the time it starts to get dark, they are in the mood to engage in some real-world gun violence.
On social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, young gang members are making threats online, using musical lyrics to encourage others to engage in violence, and providing live coverage of ongoing gang disputes, thereby causing mayhem to erupt on the streets of Philly.
So what’s going on here?
Taking a big picture view of things, social media is clearly speeding up the cycle of violence. As one interviewee told NBC Philadelphia, social media is like “brushfire,” speeding up the retaliation process. Online hashtags are key here, because it helps gang members find and track disputes in real-time.
Complicating matters is the fact that many of the young gang members sharing their violent lyrics on social media are looked up to by others in the community, simply due to their large followings. People tune in daily to see who’s dissing who, just like they would with a soap opera. And there is even a brand new vocabulary that has developed on social media. Your dispute is your “beef,” your opposition is your “ops,” and music focusing on the cycle of gun violence is known as “drill music.” If you really want to, says one local Philly teen, you can tune in at just about anytime on social media to see a shooting in progress.
Granted, this probably is not too different from how things happened “back in the day.” Hang out at the Italian Market in South Philly, and you’ll probably hear decades-old stories about hot-headed teens carrying out violence against rivals. Or maybe you’ll hear about Philly-area mobsters exacting revenge on others for some “diss” they received in public as part of the Great Philly Mob War:
But here’s the thing – that cycle of violence probably took days, if not weeks or months, to play out. And by that time, cooler heads would probably prevail. But with social media, you don’t get time to decompress and think about what carrying around a loaded gun really means. Instead, it happens so quickly. And it’s a lot harder to de-escalate and back things down because you have hundreds, if not thousands, of people following your every move on social media. If you don’t hit back hard after a negative diss on TikTok, your credibility could be on the line.
How to stop the cycle of violence?
Thankfully, there are some people actually trying to stop the cycle of violence in Philadelphia. One noteworthy aspect of the NBC Philadelphia series, in fact, was the decision to dedicate an entire segment to thoughts on how to end the violence. There seem to be three basic options: (1) providing incentives for positive music, lyrics, and behavior (2) getting guns off the streets so social media threats can’t escalate to new shootings and (3) pushing back hard against the big social media companies, to get them to block this content.
Of these three options, arguably the one that could have the most immediate impact is getting the likes of Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram to scrub their platforms of violence. That might just be the only way left to end Philly-area gun violence and give young teens in the city a chance for a brighter future.