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Gangs turn to social media for recruitment

A new study reveals that social media platforms are proving to be a ripe breeding ground for gang recruitment among high-risk youths.

SINGAPORE: Social media is proving to be a ripe breeding ground for gang recruitment among high-risk youths, new local research revealed on Tuesday (July 29).

The study by the National University of Singapore (NUS) is the first study of the impact of social media on high-risk youths, and covered 36 juvenile delinquents aged between 15 and 18. Their criminal records span the gamut of theft, robbery, drugs and even rioting.

The research showed that through platforms like Facebook, these youths socialised with peers connected to gangs and were drawn into their criminal activities.

"For youths at risk, one important issue is that if they engage in unstructured, unsupervised socialising with their peers, the tendency for them to then engage in acts of delinquency is higher," explained Associate Professor Lim Sun Sun, from the NUS Department of Communications and New Media.

One 17-year-old said he was recruited into a gang through online interactions with gang members. "The more frequently we talk, as you get closer, you get recruited into the gang," he said. Another 17-year-old who was convicted for theft said that gangs would sometimes post information about criminal activities, such as selling contraband cigarettes, online.

Dr Lim said a call for gang mobilisation would be done on social media platforms because of the gang loyalty factor - responding to such calls online shows affirmation and support for gang events.

“I did find youths in my study who felt this sense of pressure, this compulsion to actually show their loyalty to the gang by supporting these events, by commenting positively. As a result of that highly public, highly visible nature of call for support, the peer pressure became mobilised and strengthened in particular ways," she said.

Social media is also used as a platform for posturing. Several respondents reported belonging to groups that used Facebook to project group identities. This was done in ways such as adding the same prefix or suffix to their profile names or by including the gang name, logo or secret code in their profile information.

Said Dr Lim: "There is really more of the posturing and the impression management, building up their reputation. And then building up that sense of gang identity. So they will take pictures of their tattoos and they will share it online and it is really more about building that sense of shared identity, brotherhood and so on. But they are very aware that the police are watching so they won't be that overt."

Social media may also offer an insidious route to recidivism, as many find it hard to "unfriend" their old contacts, when they want to start over.

"It becomes difficult for you to do so when online your old friends are still hanging about,” Dr Lim said. “There have been cases where youths try to create a completely new online existence so they can have a fresh start in life that puts their delinquent past behind them."

Despite what the study has shown, there is still some good in social media. For example, there are many opportunities for youths to make new friends on social media who might inject a positive influence on them.

Tech-savvy youths are also using tools like Foursquare and Facebook check-ins to keep track of their former gang friends, so they don't fall back into bad company. To help educators and those who work with troubled youths better understand the digital landscape, Dr Lim has developed a resource kit, which has been distributed to schools and agencies working in the youth sector.

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