Your research is part of a Google Ideas project about using the internet to counter extremism. What's the thinking behind that?
Google Ideas is a think tank founded in 2010 to tackle human challenges using technology. One of the first challenges was to understand extremism. It commissioned four studies - on terrorism, religious cults, right-wing hate groups and gangs. Our study is the first to emerge from the project.
How do street gangs use the internet?
Gangs online are similar to gangs offline - they are more likely than non-gang peers to engage in theft and make threats of violence, for example. But the internet also gives them a platform to promote their reputations. Much of what gang members do is brag - about women, drugs, fights - to enhance their reputations. Instead of boasting to guys on the street corner, online they can reach anybody who clicks on their YouTube video.
Do gangs recruit online like hate groups do?
No, Most gangs are neighbourhood-based, and their recruitment strategies are built around trust. You don't know who is on the other side of the computer. And unlike hate groups, for the most part, gangs don't have ideology, They are not like terrorist groups or religious cults, We do think there is some cultural diffusion, though, where kids outside typical gang territory pick up on gang behaviours - learn the culture, how to dress.
How does what happens online influence what goes on in the real world?
Online conflicts corresponded to offline conflicts. That's what we find most concerning, Ultimately, the internet is just another form of word of mouth, but this word travels really quickly, and there's a trail everybody can see. There have been instances on Twitter and on Facebook that have resulted in some very real negative consequences.
What about cybercrime?
The FBI's 2011 National Gang Intelligence Center report made it appear that gangs have the technological competency to commit cybercrimes like identity theft. But when interviewing these guys, we realised that they don't. They use Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, but they can't write code, they can't hack into systems.
You found that gang members go online - to sites like Facebook in particular - as much as their non-gang peers. Was that a surprise?…