Professor studies Twitter threats of girl gang killer in Chicago
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Gakirah Barnes, a reputed gang assassin gunned down at age 17, was an internet celebrity of sorts in her South Side neighborhood.
Barnes, suspected by the police in a murder and at least three other shootings, posted an enormous 27,000 tweets — many of them containing threats of violence — from the time she created her Twitter account in 2011 until her death in 2014.
And she amassed more than 2,500 Twitter followers during her three years on the social-media platform.
Desmond Patton, an associate professor at Columbia University in New York, has studied the Twitter habits of Barnes, whose rare reputation as a female gang killer attracted international attention after she was killed.
Patton said she’s an example of how violent conflicts between rival Chicago gang members often start on the internet and are settled with guns.
“This is an emerging public-health problem,” he said. “What starts out with a funny ‘ha ha’ can quickly escalate online.”
Patton, a former University of Chicago graduate student, published his study with four co-authors earlier this year. They examined about 400 tweets from Barnes’ account and more than 2,100 tweets from her followers in the weeks before and after her death on April 11, 2014.
Barnes named her Twitter account @TyquanAssassin in honor of Rassan Patterson, a friend who was fatally shot by a Chicago Police officer about two weeks before Barnes was killed.
Prior to her death, the Twitter messages from her account “referenced feelings of isolation in a violent environment, where death at an early age was expected,” Patton’s study said.
People in her network posted messages about killing rival gangs — and the police.
“If We see a opp F— it We Gne smoke em,” one of Barnes’ tweets said, referring to killing opposition gang members.
Another said: “Jst Brought A Crate of Guns I’m on my way Thru Lamron shot u n Whoeva next 2 u.”
Barnes was affiliated with a faction of the Gangster Disciples in the Woodlawn neighborhood. In her post, she was telling Twitter followers that she had obtained guns and was headed to Normal Avenue — which she spelled backwards — where the rival Black Disciples gang was located in the Englewood neighborhood.
After she was killed, one of Barnes’ followers threatened to retaliate against the Black Disciples, tweeting out: “Imma kill you! @vell300 #BDK.”
“Vell” referred to a Twitter user affiliated with the Black Disciples, and BDK was short for Black Disciples Killer, according to Patton’s study.
Some tweets from followers referred to Barnes as a “hitta,” or a gang assassin. In some of her own tweets, she referred to herself as “boss,” indicating she was respected among her fellow gang members.
Patton said menacing Twitter gang messages, which he calls “internet banging,” are common in Chicago but are happening in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and other big cities too.
“I don’t think it’s a Chicago issue,” he said.
He said he’s working with Cure Violence in Chicago to develop a system to analyze such tweets. The goal is to identify which tweets pose serious threats and alert the group’s outreach workers so they can prevent real violence, Patton said.
“By the time these people have met face to face, they have already had their argument online. They have their guns and their friends, and it’s on,” he said.
Videos of shootings have even made it on to social-media platforms.
Patton pointed to a video of Brian Fields, a convicted murderer, getting critically wounded in a shooting near 56th and Hoyne in Englewood on March 31 while he was live-streaming on Facebook.
“I need somewhere to duck and hide for cover,” Fields says on the video before shots ring out.
Fields falls to the ground but his smartphone continues to record a man standing over him firing a gun multiple times.
The video went viral.
Gang members who use social media typically don’t protect their accounts with privacy settings. Their families, their teachers, the police and rival gang members can all see everything they post, Patton found in his research.
The Chicago Police Department regularly analyzes social media for threats of gang violence and for evidence of crimes. A department spokesman declined to discuss those efforts.
Police were closely watching Barnes’ Twitter account and grew worried for her safety and the rival gangs she was antagonizing.
Officers drove around her neighborhood to look for her and offer her help to get out of her life of violence but they couldn’t find her, said Kenneth Boudreau, a retired Chicago Police sergeant.
They spoke to a relative who said she didn’t know Barnes’ whereabouts, Boudreau said. Minutes later, Barnes taunted the officers, saying that “12,” code for the police, was searching for her. Police think 12 comes from the TV cop show “Adam 12.”
A few days later, Barnes was killed.
Boudreau said such outreach was common for his social media team. The team was supposed to expand by dozens of officers and several sergeants under former police Supt. Garry McCarthy but Boudreau said that hasn’t happened yet under police Supt. Eddie Johnson’s new administration.
Barnes may have died as a result of her public life on Twitter.
On the day she was killed, a tweet from her @TyquanAssassin account gave the address of an apartment on St. Lawrence Avenue where she and her fellow gang members hung out. The tweet was accompanied by a picture of Barnes and her friends posing on the steps of a home.
Later that day, she was shot to death just blocks away from that address.
Her killing demonstrates how social media can prove deadly for those involved in gang activity, Patton said.
“For many of these young folks,” he said, “their online experiences translate into what happens to them offline.”