Some say violence begets violence, and cities like New York have seen violence at its worst. But violence also begets innovation, and cities such as New York are witnessing cutting-edge solutions for crime prevention. The Citizen Crime Commission of NY, an independent, nonpartisan organization working to reduce crime and to improve the criminal justice system, has been at the forefront of many of these efforts. In this interview, Richard Aborn, the commission’s president and a long-time IDB advisor, talks about how they have harnessed machine learning and social media to prevent murders.
This post is available in Spanish.
If we want to reduce crime and violence, whether in New York or in Latin America and the Caribbean, why should we pay attention to online social media?
Aborn: So we are seeing a rapid move, in New York and across the US, of the vitriol that use to occur between gang members on the street to social media platforms, especially Facebook, and it is becoming increasingly violent and threatening. So you see threats going back and forth, you see video tape threats, you see pictures of guns, you see attempts to attack people. This ratchets-up the severity of the threatening language, and it is then magnified because not only is a person posting saying these things, but then this person’s friends join the acrimony. The other side then responds with equal intensity amplifying what on the streets would have been a simple exchange into a full scale verbal cyber war. So we have this vast acceleration of violent conduct on Facebook.
But alarmingly it doesn’t stay in cyber space.
What we’ve now noticed is that it doesn’t stop on Facebook. It’s now coming back to the streets and we’re seeing genuine murders, real murders take place as a result of these exchanges on cyber space. In New York alone, in the last couple of years, we have found that this risky behavior on social media has led to at least 240 shootings, 24 murders, and the indictment of over 700 youth. So we now know there is real life violence flowing from the violence in media and we are compelled to find interventions to bring it down.
How are you able to track a specific homicide for example to a certain interaction online?
Aborn: Because we track the public page dialogue that’s going on between gang members or other high risk individuals, and we know when they’re threatening each other, we know when the murder takes place, and then very often there is some affirmation of the murder on Facebook.
And do you have a technology to do that or do you do that manually?
Aborn: So we do it by working with people who are based in the community, who we have trained to be what we call violence interrupters (VIs). These individuals are usually reformed criminals who have understood that they have an obligation to try and help stop others from living lives of crime, and have an obligation to try and reduce the violence in their communities. This is a very community-based mechanism and the VI’s are at the core of the process; people dedicated to saving and improving lives in their own communities often with little to no reward by essentially saying ‘don’t follow the path I took’.
How is online social media content that is violent different and potentially more dangerous than, for example, just an argument between two people on the street?
Aborn: Because when you have an argument on the street, the argument occurs, the argument ends, and the argument by and large disappears. When you have an argument on Facebook it’s there for everybody to see, it’s permanent, and then it gets amplified because other people start commenting on it. So there is this leveraging that takes place on Facebook, it’s a leveraging towards violence.
So what technology based tools have you developed to address this violence that’s going from Facebook to the streets?
Aborn: We’re developing two separate technology based tools that both support each other. The first tool that we’ve developed is E-responder. E-responder is an online intervention tool that is used by trained professionals to intervene in violent vitriol online. It is based in traditional conflict resolution skills but we train people to use these skills in an electronic environment not in a personal environment. And actually it has proven to be very effective. A New York University evaluation of the program found that 97% of E-responder interventions led to positive outcomes, 60% of all interruptions made individuals feel empowered to change their behavior, and about 40% resulted in the de-escalation of conflict.
That’s impressive. So what would be an example of how this actually plays out? There’s an argument happening on Facebook…
Aborn: We would train the E-responder in how to either post something that would begin to diffuse the violence or to post something privately directly to the person who had made the violent comment and get that individual to start thinking about the ramifications of what they’ve done. Or we would work with the person who has posted to get the dangerous post taken down and get the person into a location to offer community-based services that would be helpful.
But we are also seeing a rapid rise in the expression of group and individual grief as an underlying factor in violent conduct and we are taking specific steps to address this emerging phenomenon.
So… what exactly do you mean by that last part on grief?
Aborn: When groups or individuals see friends get arrested or shot, when they see girls get beat up, or mothers abused by their partners, this causes grief. In the context of at risk youth, grief can manifest itself not as depression but as violence. So we are becoming increasingly sensitized to this, and we now know that we have to be able to track not just threatening content online but also content related to grief since it can be a precursor to violence.
And these E-responders… who are they in contact with on Facebook, how do you choose who to monitor?
Aborn: The E-responders have program participants that they work with in the physical world, and these individuals are either gang members or high risk individuals mainly between the ages of 18-25. The VI’s work with them on a weekly basis, and part of the deal they have with them is that they have access to their Facebook Pages and other social media pages.
That’s interesting, like a new way of integrating social media in community-based interventions. And what about the FAST program?
Aborn: So E-responder is working very well. We’ve trained many of these violence interrupters to step into these virtual violent confrontations and help diffuse them. But they came to us, and they said ‘We really love the tool but we are overwhelmed with the number of posts, and we don’t know what’s a real threat and we don’t know what’s just kids sorta yelling at each other that doesn’t constitute a real threat.’ So we’ve now developed an analytic tool called FAST (Facebook Application Screening Tool), which sits on Facebook and the tool actually is scanning or reading all the posts that are being put up on Facebook, and through a pretty complicated algorithm we’ve developed it is actually weighing the verbiage in the post and making a value judgment about what is an immediate danger post, what is a threatening post, and what is a non-threatening post. And it is sending that information to the violence interrupters as a triage tool, so they know where to focus their attention.
So the story about Molly was in the context of FAST?
Aborn: These VIs kept seeing this reference to Molly, and had no idea who Molly was. But everybody was talking about bringing Molly to a party, and it turned out that Molly was a code for gun. So you know, you need an insight to do this, and that’s where the technology would help. But the technology alone is not sufficient. We also have deep connections in the neighborhoods where crime is occurring which help us understand the context of much of the dialogue. And this allows us to more precisely develop our software. The new one that’s emerged is that there’s this famous basketball player by the name of Curry, he’s a great shooter, knows how to put the ball in the basket. Well, we started seeing that people were referring to somebody as a Curry and we were like ‘What does that mean?’ or ‘Call the Curry.’ or ‘Do you know where we can get a Curry?’ We couldn’t figure out what it was. It turns out it meant shooter.
As in like not shooting basketballs…
Aborn: Not shooting basketballs…
And the way you get this insight is… how?
Aborn: We use two things, the technology and we use our very deep contacts in the streets. You have to know all sides of the issues. Law enforcement is also very interested in prevention and is very helpful. Their principal goal is to stop the violence, preferably before it becomes worse and they recognize the vital importance of working with high risk individuals to try to curb the shootings.
I’m very interested in that, because I think obviously you’re leveraging technology in very new ways to get these things done, but at the same time there is a very clear role for people here, whether that is law enforcement officers or former gang members who are working with you.
Aborn: So that’s exactly right. The important thing about thinking about technology is that no matter how well you use it, it is just a tool. It is not something that ever replaces human intervention. It aids human intervention, it makes human intervention more effective, but it doesn’t replace it.
Photo: Flickr CC Xomiele.