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Social media could be fueling gun violence among young people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A look now behind the statistics on homicides in America. As we've reported, early data from hundreds of cities suggest the overall murder rate in the U.S. may be falling after a surge, both in cities and rural areas, that started in 2020. Here are a few lines from a new ProPublica piece.

ALEC MACGILLIS: (Reading) Criminologists point to a confluence of factors, including the social disruptions caused by COVID-19, the rise in gun sales early in the pandemic, and the uproar following the murder of George Floyd, which, in many cities, led to diminished police activity and further erosion of trust in the police. But in my reporting on the surge, I kept hearing about another accelerant - social media.

RASCOE: That's Alec MacGillis. He noticed that one of the drivers of the spike in homicides, and one that shows no sign of decreasing even as the overall rate seems to fall, is violence in cities among young people.

MACGILLIS: It's really bad. It's incredibly striking. The number that jumped out most to me was that there's been a 91% increase between 2014 and 2021 - 91% increase in homicides among 15- to 19-year-olds. Just a stunning rise that far outpaces the overall rise in homicides over that period.

RASCOE: And so authorities like local police departments - they are seeing ties between social media and these killings?

MACGILLIS: So I've been reporting on this terrible rise in gun violence over the past couple years. And in addition to the factors that I laid out in the piece that could explain this increase, what I kept hearing from not just police but also violence prevention workers was that social media was presenting an entirely new challenge. Essentially that you have instigation happening on social media that has far more force than what used to happen just sort of on the street, on the corner, in the school classroom, the school hallway, mouth to mouth, that right now you have the ability of instigation online to be so much more visible so that the person being targeted by a given post feels much more pressure to respond.

RASCOE: You point out in your piece that smartphones and social media existed, you know, well before 2020's rise in murder rates. What exactly changed three years ago?

MACGILLIS: The pandemic, with the isolation that it caused - all the closures of schools and rec centers and all these other civic institutions - of course left people much more attached to their phones for communication, distraction. And so it's really not hard to see how this toxic effect of social media in fueling conflict would have grown.

RASCOE: Can you talk to me about what you mean by instigation on social media? Is it just calling out an individual, saying, oh, when I see you, it's up? I'm going to - you know, I'ma (ph) do this? Is that the sort of thing that we're talking about?

MACGILLIS: Exactly. It takes many different forms - Instagram posts, Instagram Live videos or Facebook Live videos where you're actually streaming from someone else's turf and sort of taunting them and saying, here I am on your side of town, come and get me. And then comes the threat from the other side, well, where are you? Drop your pin if you've got the guts to actually show where you are. And then you drop your pin, and then they come get you.

RASCOE: If there are these clear threats of personal violence, why aren't social media companies doing more here or setting standards where you can't say these things or, like, shutting down some of this?

MACGILLIS: I reached out to all the companies, and I was really quite struck at the - I don't know - indifference might be too strong a word. There's so much focus these days on how to screen social media for rhetoric of political violence. But there seems to be much less attention given to what we do about this much more routine conflict that flows between young people in our cities. And then, of course, there's also simply the practical challenge of, with the much more routine kind of stuff that flows back and forth, how does one even start to screen some of this stuff? But really, in general, it just struck me that the companies had not really focused on this more and were perhaps not even aware of how much their own products were playing a role in fueling a lot of this conflict and violence.

RASCOE: Are there any solutions to this that look promising for the social media companies or for, you know, any other parties that may be able to intervene?

MACGILLIS: So there are researchers in the violence prevention field who've been worrying about this for quite a while. And one of them, by the name of Desmond Patton, worked with some colleagues over the last few years to come up with algorithms that were designed to basically screen Twitter posts for posts that signaled possible violence to the poster themselves, you know, self-harm, or aggression towards others. And they were pretty successful in coming up with algorithms that were good at finding those kind of posts. But they have not in fact actually deployed this with violence prevention groups because they were worried about the ethical aspect of it, that there was somehow - it resembled too much surveillance efforts by police, by law enforcement. But it's really tough. I mean, it's everywhere. It's pervasive in our lives. And so how to tamp down on it and filter it out is extraordinarily difficult.

RASCOE: That's Alec MacGillis. His piece called "How Social Media Apps Could Be Fueling Homicides Among Young Americans" is available from ProPublica and The Atlantic. Thank you so much for joining us.

MACGILLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.