CHICAGO

It’s a story as old as time itself: If you want to protect yourself from predators, get big and scary. Even the great horned owl fluffs up its feathers, and the puffer fish swells its spiny skin to ward off attackers.

So, too, it goes in the social media age—a time in which we condemn peers for attempting to portray their lives as more glamorous and exciting than our own for the sake of retweets or likes. But some people are now using their virtual identities to create barriers to violence.

Many who grow up in unsafe neighborhoods—where gangs set shifting boundaries that, when crossed, could have mortal consequences—have found that social media can provide an effective security system against being victimized. All it takes is some props and bluster.

On Chicago’s South Side, for instance, gang-associated young people often use what Stanford sociologist Forrest Stuart called “fabricated displays of bravado” to mitigate conflicts by presenting themselves as scarier and more violent than they are in real life.

These online images could include, for instance, guns and other weapons that don’t actually belong to the people displaying them. Or they could post pictures of crowds of people who aren’t really part of their social group.

In his paper “Code of the Tweet: Urban Gang Violence in the Social Media Age,” published last month in the journal Social Problems, Stuart outlines how a virtual stand-off can often replace real-life conflicts.

“Contrary to common belief, the majority of social media challenges remain confined to online space and do not generate offline violence,” Stuart told the Stanford News Service. “Sometimes that gun a young man posts on social media is actually a part of his attempt to not use that gun. If he can convince everybody at his school, for instance, that he is well-armed and well-backed by a gang, then maybe he can walk home safer. Maybe somebody will think twice about challenging him.”

Not surprisingly, gang-associated youth might use social media to not only seem tougher than they are, but also to publicly undermine the authenticity of their rivals’ performances of toughness, strength and masculinity.

“They are fighting each other not over territory but over who can prove to be the most authentic person,” Stuart said. “On social media, they use all these different ways to challenge the authenticity of somebody else. They’re trying to show the public that their rival isn’t nearly as hard as he claims he is.”

Some techniques for doing so include “cross referencing,” in which young men publicize images proving their rivals were embellishing their toughness. They also engage in “calling bluffs,” which is exactly as it sounds—they dare their rivals to attempt an act of violence, and if the challenge isn’t accepted, that unwillingness to engage in violence is amplified.

Another technique called “catching lacking”—this one believed to be the likeliest to spur violent retaliation—involves confronting a rival when he is with family or in another setting in which violence wouldn’t necessarily be expected, and then recording and disseminating footage of the target not taking the bait.

While all of this is notable social science in and of itself, the value of Stuart’s ingenious study is to show that there are methods to the madness of the streets—and they’re often employed to prevent bloodshed, not exacerbate it.

It’s a distinction that needs to be better understood. Not only by the police officers who patrol America’s most violent neighborhoods, but by the computer programmers who create the algorithm-powered databases that try to quantify and predict how likely someone is to commit a crime.

An ex-convict, for example, might act tough on social media in order to avoid imperiling his probation with an attack by a rival yet have this precaution misinterpreted by court personnel who mistakenly overestimated the relationship between his aggressive posts and his desire to engage in offline violence.

Stuart warns against law enforcement reading too much into social-media posts, suggesting that nuanced and contextualized analyses of virtual activity should be the norm instead of assuming that there is a direct correlation between performative violence on social media and real-life violence on the street.

Pro tip: Keep your eyes wide open on social media—and don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

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Esther Cepeda writes for The Washington Post Writers Group. Reach her at estherjcepeda@ washpost.com.

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