The photographs went online earlier this month after a 27-year-old man was gunned down in South Los Angeles. One showed a man flashing a chrome handgun from his jacket pocket. In another, a young man held a pistol in each hand.
“Better wake up,” one person wrote on Instagram. “It's a war goin' on.”
“This area ain't safe right now,” someone else posted with a map showing a portion of South L.A.
The warnings of increased gang violence intensified across social media platforms this weekend after more than half a dozen shootings in South L.A. left one man dead and 12 people wounded.
FOR THE RECORD:
South L.A. violence: In the July 28 Section A, an article about violence in South Los Angeles was accompanied by an inaccurate map. The detail portion showing the locations of recent shootings was correct, but the area depicted was shown too far south on the inset map. A corrected map is online at latimes.com/SouthLA-violence.
The postings created an echo chamber in which it was difficult to determine what was a real threat and what was rumor. One of the most incendiary claims was that a gang had vowed 100 days of violence after the 27-year-old man was killed on July 17, sparking alarming hashtags such as #100days100nights and #PrayforLA on Twitter and other sites.
Police said they were monitoring the traffic as they try to quell the violence. LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Scott met with gang intervention workers Monday night, telling them there was no evidence to corroborate the threats and asking for help in calming fears.
“You've got everyday folks who have nothing to do with the gang lifestyle and culture scared,” he said.
The events underscore how social media platforms in recent years have played a significant role in the investigation of gang crimes as well as the effort to reduce violence. Investigators and gang intervention workers said gang members don't rely only on spray-painting the sides of buildings to send their threats. Now, they said, social media allow gangs to directly challenge adversaries and quickly spread fear within neighborhoods.
“Gang rivalries are now fought by insults and threats on social media,” said Robert Rubin, a community intervention worker in South Los Angeles.
Aqeela Sherrills, who also works in gang intervention, agreed.
“Now the message gets across the city faster,” he said. “In the neighborhood, everything travels by word of mouth. Social media added a quantum effect to it.”
Sal LaBarbera, who recently retired after spending years investigating killings in South L.A., said LAPD detectives have been using social media in gang investigations for some time.
Detectives once tracked down a murder suspect after they found a Facebook photo of him holding a gun, LaBarbera said. The detectives were able to read the gun's serial number, he said, and determined it was the murder weapon.
“They call it 'wall banging,'” he said. “You can put any gang name or monikers or slang, type it in Twitter, type it in Instagram, and you can follow gang members around.”
The LAPD recently assigned officers to monitor public websites for messages about protests, large parties or activities that may be criminal.
The department said gang officers discovered the most recent rumors of violence last Tuesday. An internal sheriff's memo sent to deputies last week warned them about the “social media chatter” that included photos of guns and “discussion of 100 days and 100 [nights] of violence/retaliation.” The memo included screen shots, hashtags and Instagram accounts with “significant chatter.”
Sheriff's Capt. Steven J. Sciacca, who heads the department's South L.A. station, said investigators were still assessing the social media messages but hadn't seen a significant spike in shootings since they began to circulate.
The shootings in the LAPD area late last week and on Saturday were concentrated in the department's 77th Street Division, which covers some of the city's most violent neighborhoods. The division saw six shootings from Thursday through Saturday. LAPD officials responded by deploying more officers to the area to deter retaliatory attacks and calling upon local clergy and gang outreach workers for help.
There were signs the violence had eased. Scott, the deputy chief of the LAPD's South Bureau, said no shootings were reported in the 77th Street Division on Sunday, and just one was reported early Monday when a man was shot in what appeared to be a road rage incident at Florence and Normandie avenues.
The spike in violence, Scott said, was tragic but not necessarily unusual. And the fear demonstrates the power of social media to spread rumors, he said.
Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who has studied social media's effect on gang activity, said websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram allow gang members to more easily disrespect their rivals.
“It's the 21st century version of painting graffiti on the side of a building ... but much safer because you don't have to ride into enemy territory,” he said. “It allows from a safe distance the posting of threats that, if carried out in person, would lead to immediate retaliation.”
Skipp Townsend, a former gang member who now works as an interventionist, said social media have made it easier for him to trace the origin of threats and rumors of retaliation so that he can calm tempers.
At a peace rally Monday evening, about 60 people gathered near Hawthorne Municipal Airport, at one point joining in a prayer with their hands in the air.
Among those attending were children wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with “Let me live! #mylifematters.”
Kris Carter said she was so scared to leave her South L.A. home to attend the event that she avoided major roads and highways, preferring side streets. She said she believes the threat of violence is real.
“It's got to stop,” she said.
Times staff writer Jerome Campbell contributed to this report.