Cyber Warfare: Doctoral Student Warns of Street Gangs’ Use of Social Media and Mobile Devices

By Tom McLaughlin

In his recent State of the Union address, President Donald Trump talked about the scourge of gangs in the United States and the ongoing measures to eliminate them.

Accounts of turf wars, members’ loyalties, and peer-on-peer violence ring disturbingly familiar, but they now extend into previously unchartered territory: cyberspace, explains a Rutgers University–Camden doctoral student.

Welcome to Gangland in the 21st Century.

Lyttle Storrod says that location tags and popular apps such as Find My iPhone are routinely used to keep young gang members and girls in constant contact and under constant surveillance.

Michelle Lyttle Storrod, a recognized authority on gang violence and prevention in her native Great Britain, is currently focusing her dissertation research on the impact and influence of social media platforms and mobile devices on street gangs and other forms of extremism, with a particular focus on girls.

She is looking at how these technological tools are used as means of control and thus catalysts for physical and sexual violence.

For instance, says the Ph.D. student in childhood studies, location tags and popular apps such as Find My iPhone are routinely used to keep young gang members and girls in constant contact and under constant surveillance as a means of control.

“This makes it difficult for these younger members to seek help and further immerses them in criminal lifestyles,” says Lyttle Storrod, who had previously studied these topics as part of her master’s research in London and is now doing a comparative study in Camden.

In some instances, says the Camden resident, young gang members will be asked by higher-ranking members to provide pictures or video evidence of their surroundings, and thus their activities. They are asked to show not only where they are and who is with them, but also that they still have drugs they were given to sell or money they have earned through selling.

“So they literally know where they are 24/7,” says Storrod. “These gang members will, in turn, do that to girls with whom they are involved in relationships.”

In other instances, she explains, young people will be filmed being abused, talking to rivals, or being in areas where they shouldn’t be, providing “digital collateral” that can be used against them.

Michelle Lyttle Storrod is a recognized authority on gang violence and prevention in her native Great Britain.

“Someone could say, ‘Unless you do this, I am going to put this video out on social media,’ shaming you in front of thousands of people,” says Lyttle Storrod.

This round-the-clock surveillance, notes the Rutgers–Camden doctoral student, makes it difficult for young people to focus on school or jobs.

“If they are always having to answer their phones or be in demand, they really can’t have a life at all,” she says. “They are always on call; switching off or not being available has consequences, putting them and their family at risk of violence for not complying with the rules.”

In addition to her research, Lyttle Storrod is a founding member of the London-based nonprofit Growing Against Violence (GAV), which leads violence prevention programs for youth ages 10 to 18 on the dangers of gangs and extreme violence. It is the largest violence prevention initiative in Europe. More than 150,000 students in 600 schools across London and southeast England have attended one of its sessions.

“We talk to them about different things related to extreme violence, as well as topics such as gang recruitment, grooming, cyberbullying, sexting, and child sexual exploitation,” says Lyttle Storrod, who authors the curriculum for the programs, in addition to serving as a board member, facilitator, and media spokesperson.

Lyttle Storrod is also a consultant for the Ministry of Justice, the Metropolitan Police and the National Health Service on issues related to gangs and social media, providing training and policy support.

She has also led sessions for many professionals in her native U.K., including analysts, police officers, social workers, teachers, and prison and probation officers.

In addition, she has worked extensively with local and national institutional and government agencies to advocate for policy changes related to a range of social issues. Among her efforts, she was part of a national campaign focusing on the proper investigation and reporting of child sexual exploitation. Lyttle Storrod personally led the media efforts to bring awareness to these crimes and their perpetrators, and how these crimes should be dealt with accordingly.

“It’s a labor of love,” she says. “It’s something that I feel very strongly about and something that I need to continue to do. There are countless vulnerable young people out there who are crying out for additional understanding and support. We need to listen to them and take issues related to social media seriously, supporting professionals and policymakers to do the same.”

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