This story is part of Reframing Crime Narratives, a 10-part series about public safety by The TRiiBE to create space for community conversation about crime in Chicago

The series is supported in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Envisioning Justice grant by Illinois Humanities.

In the new millennia, social media has been one of the most prominent avenues for Black youth culture. The early-2000s saw the rise of platforms like Tagged, Myspace, Black Planet and Facebook. Back then, a person’s timeline, “Top 5” or feed was centralized based on proximity compared to the globalized network we know today. 

During the late 2000s and early 2010s, though, pop culture began to pay attention to random videos and moments online that uniquely drew anywhere from thousands to millions of viewers — essentially, going “viral”. Simultaneously, Chicago’s gang culture began to emerge online at a time where Chicago’s social media was hyperlocal. As the drill music scene exploded around 2011, the new spotlight revealed an underbelly of Chicago culture  — and it played out live on social media.

“That world was a whole different time,” said Drea O, host and owner of “The Drea O Show” and former social media manager for REVOLT. She has covered Chicago drill music over the past decade.

“We did not know, and I don’t think that any of the drill rappers knew, that their words were going to be screenshotted and posted and used later. I don’t think they would have been tweeting about murders and different plays that were going to happen,” she explained. “So at that time, social media was kind of the wild, wild west even more so because we didn’t know what it was going to be now.”

Between drill music and the real world, social media has long been a complicated catalyst for Chicago violence. As conflicts are instigated by social media trolls, and people who commit crimes broadcast their acts for millions to see and discuss, this leaves Black Chicago wide open for exploitation from right-wing news entities and fringe hip hop outlets. 

Cheo Patrick, a longtime legal consultant from South Shore, credits social media as playing a role in instigating conflict, which leads to violence in real life. As a legal consultant, he and his team have advised many of Chicago’s biggest drill rappers, including G Herbo and most recently Chief Keef. 

“You have to give credence to the fact that these guys are antagonizing one another. And so, because of that, it creates and develops animosity,” Patrick said. “All of that leads to the ongoing beef and the ongoing disconnect that exists, that perpetuates the violence between these guys.”

One example of this, according to Drea O, is the infamous 2012 murder of rising rapper Lil JoJo, who quickly rose to stardom after his genre-shifting diss to Chief Keef, Lil Durk and Lil Reese, titled “BDK.” Amidst their beef, JoJo posted his location on Twitter to taunt his numerous enemies across Chicago, but paid an unfortunate price soon after when he was gunned down in Englewood.

Drea O, host of The Drea O Show, is a hip-hop journalist based in Chicago and a former social media manager for REVOLT. Photo by Morgan Taylor for The TRiiBE®
Drea O, host of The Drea O Show, is a hip-hop journalist based in Chicago and a former social media manager for REVOLT. Photo by Morgan Taylor for The TRiiBE®

“I think one of the biggest moments that we saw play out online would be the murder of Lil JoJo, because JoJo was updating the opps on his whereabouts on social media. And people like to say that they got the low from social media because he posted that he was going to be at such-and-such place, and then he ended up getting killed,” Drea said. 

Tony Woods, founder and executive director of Public Equity, added that social media is now “the block” for the digital age, compared to how Black people in their communities congregated in the 1990s. Through building hands-on relationships with community members, part of what Public Equity does is monitor conflicts that spark on social media platforms and help quell the fires through conflict resolution. 

According to Public Equity, their work across Englewood has led to a 25% decrease in homicides and 31% decrease in shooting victims. And their work in Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, and Auburn Gresham led to a 19.5% reduction in violent crimes. 

“I think social media just made the world smaller, right? And Chicago was even smaller than that.” Woods explained. “So it just kind of highlighted what was going on in certain areas to everybody in every area. Now, certain things might be happening on the South Side [or] out West, and it almost became like a nasty competition to see whose area was the busiest, the hardest, the worst.”

Social media slowly morphed the streets into violent reality shows over time, according to Woods. The embarrassment from an incident is now public for millions of people online to see, rather than just your neighborhood. It’s made conflict resolution even harder.

“Now everybody sees what happened, and people just don’t want to be embarrassed. It’s amplified everything, right?” Woods said about social media. “So if a conflict takes place, you got two groups involved, if one of those individuals takes a hit, and somebody falls, everybody gets the chance to see that. And then the person who took the fall feels like they got to redeem themselves to get their lick back.”

Many often wonder why so many teens and young adults are willing to document violence on social media. Ryan Chandler, a Chicago-bred hip-hop therapist and school counselor, said that part is generational. 

He said there’s a distinct difference between how Millennials view using social media compared to Gen Z and younger. Millennials, who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s, knew a world where access to the internet was practically a luxury compared to younger generations who are coming of age with the internet and social media ingrained into their daily lives.

“If social media was here before you, you think, ‘oh, it’s normal to broadcast everything I’m doing, both positive and negative.’ It’s normal to connect with people more in the virtual space than in real life,” Chandler said. “Everything that has now become aspects of social media is now real life, and that’s where it gets problematic.”

On the flip side, new technology has historically been the enemy of “criminals,” Chandler said when mentioning how social media has made violent crime easier for law enforcement to investigate and solve. With new advances in technology, a reckless post on social media can become a lead for journalists when searching for details and clues to include in their crime reporting, for the police to use as evidence that could lead to an arrest, or for online gossip hounds to pick up and use as content.

For Patrick, setting people up by finding their location online is as old as Chicago gangs themselves, back when Italian, Jewish, Polish and Irish gangs dominated the city.

“The mafia was setting people up, left and right. So that’s not something that was created by social media or created by us,” Patrick said. “That’s something that has been going on for a while.”

“Whether it was talking on the phone, whether it was wiretaps, technology and the street code of ethics have never, ever mixed — and they never will. Every era of crime had to learn that,” Chandler said. “This is different because I don’t think the majority of people who are into crime life can help themselves. It’s almost like someone’s like, ‘if you don’t tell or show, it doesn’t exist.’”

Patrick said that the glamorization of today’s Chicago street legends — like the late James “T. Roy” Johnson, Gakirah “K.I. The Assassin” Barnes and rapper King Von, the latter whose mural near Parkway Gardens has become a landmark for tourists — is no different than the way old western gunslingers like Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde are idolized in American media.

“What’s the difference? What’s the difference between King Von and somebody like Billy the Kid?” Patrick asked rhetorically. Billy the Kid was a notorious young outlaw who gained a mythos from rumors of allegedly killing 21 people up until he was killed by a sheriff at the age of 21. Von was 26 when he died from being shot in a street fight with rapper Quando Rando in Atlanta.   

“Billy the Kid got famous for killing people! He wasn’t famous for giving away turkeys on Thanksgiving. He was famous because he was a killer. He was willing to call people out in the middle of the town to have a shootout right in the middle of the town,” Patrick added. “So what’s the difference between them and these young kids?” 

Woods and his Public Equity nonprofit are often tipped about derogatory and disparaging posts and arguments that are playing out on social media and have the potential to lead to violence.

Chicago native Tony Woods is the executive director of Public Equity. An organization that provides access to resources in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and Auburn Gresham. Photo by Morgan Taylor for The TRiiBE®
Chicago native Tony Woods is the executive director of Public Equity. An organization that provides access to resources in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and Auburn Gresham. Photo by Morgan Taylor for The TRiiBE®

“Normally, if we don’t see [it], somebody else close to us might see it, and we have instances where we have been able to get people to take posts down, kind of mitigate the situation between the two, before it went too far left,” Woods said.

Social media has allowed people to witness violence at a swipe of their fingers and even find ways to instigate fights, like a virtual soap opera. And there has always been an audience for it. 

A similar incident played out on Halloween night 2023 when “Mousekatool” rapper Mello Buckzz allegedly attacked former collaborator Amari Blaze at a Halloween party. Someone revealed her location at the height of their publicized fallout when their feud escalated from the two trading shots on social media and in local interviews to dissing on songs. 

This altercation was covered by many hip-hop blogs like No Jumper, which initially did not cover Buckzz or Blaze’s music prior to that incident. 

“It’s like a soap opera,” Patrick said. “Social media, probably in a lot of spaces, has replaced the demand to watch shows on TV. Because you got a reality show right there in your hand, every day, all day.”

And continuously witnessing this violence on social media has a detrimental impact on the minds of Black youth. Chandler has performed assessments on young people in the juvenile court system. He said he believes that most, if not all, Chicagoans from the South and West sides where the social and financial inequity is more blatant, have dealt with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He compares the abnormal experiences of constantly witnessing violence that Black Chicago youth face every day to the way war veterans often return home with PTSD and other mental health disorders. A 2019 study on Chicago youth from Andrea L. DaViera and Amanda L. Roy concluded, “all youth living in high violent crime neighborhoods need mental health support, highlighting a need for universal prevention strategies. Practitioners working with youth who reside in high-crime communities should be aware that even if youth were not directly exposed to violence, they may be in need of mental health supports.”  

Whether it’s a gang shooting or police violence, Chandler said, it all can gradually impact how a person views their surroundings, just like witnessing violence first hand.

“We all have watched violence on social media. And we are so used to it that we forget what we are taking in. We forget how that affects you,” Chandler explained. “If you watch this person get beat up, shot, killed, harmed on social media, you will now move differently when you go out.”

As these narratives of Black violence continue to be exploited by both blogs and mainstream news media, Woods said there is productive work being done to not only combat these narratives but to provide alternatives to resolving violence without the use of police. One of them is the Crisis Prevention Response Unit [CPRU], a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Peace initiatives where they disperse to areas with heavy teen trends.

“In addition to that, they develop really good relationships with young men and women that attended these teen trends downtown or at the beach, and try to connect them to services,” Woods said, adding that these services include behavioral health, job training and educational services. 

To him, the reach of these platforms that use Chicago violence for content has dire consequences for the people who live in these communities. He said that unless they are willing to be more responsible, they should not be supported.

“We shouldn’t even really support platforms that promote violence, or negativity, because, at the end of the day, people in these communities have to deal with whatever the ramifications that come from that. Not necessarily a blogger. So, I just think that the impact is far-reaching, and we just need to be more responsible and less exploitative,” Woods said. 

“I think that anybody with a platform should be striving for good, and for the betterment of the communities because they understand what’s happening and what’s at stake. Ultimately, we’re dealing with lives. And the irresponsible use of these platforms can lead to people getting hurt and even sometimes killed,” he added.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.